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What is irony? 

Irony /ˈaɪrəni/ is about expectations and the gap between the literal and intended meaning.  There are two basic types of irony, verbal and situational.  Today we’re focusing on verbal irony because it’s the most common type.  Verbal irony is basically when you say one thing but mean the opposite

For example:

Teacher:  Who agrees with David?

Students:  [silence]

Teacher: Well, don’t all shout at once.  Juliet, what do you think?


Why you need to recognise irony

Irony is universal so you’d think it would be easy to understand, but non-native speakers of most languages often don’t get it – usually because of differences in how ironic expressions are made in different languages.  This is a problem for English language learners because verbal irony is used a lot in everyday conversation, particularly in the UK, where it’s often referred to as banter’.


When to use irony

We make ironic remarks to make our friends laugh, to amuse ourselves or to make a point.  Often, it’s used for more than one reason at the same time.

For example,

Teacher: OK everyone, listen up.  We’re having a test today.

Student A:  Great!

Student B:  Oh no!

Student C:  Another test, how exciting!

So, who’s being ironic?  In this case, Student A & Student C while Student B isn’t.  In this example the students are probably being ironic for their own and each other’s amusement, but to also make a point – in this case, that the teacher is giving them too many tests.


How to recognise irony

If something makes you lightly chuckle or smirk because it’s unexpected, it’s probably the result of irony.  Particularly if the speaker has a ‘deadpan’ expression, i.e. a blank, expressionless face.

  • Compliments’ are often used in an ironic way.  ‘Nice work.’ could mean just that; but say it more slowly and extend the vowel sounds ‘Niiice wooork.’  it’s no longer a compliment, it’s irony.
    • Your partner burns dinner
      • ‘Looks delicious’
    • Your friend has new haircut which looks terrible
      • ‘Nice haircut.’
    • Your team mate misses an easy shot when playing football or basketball
      • ‘Great shot.’
  • Understatement is a form of irony, i.e. using much less force than expected.
    • During a snowstorm
      • It’s a little chilly, you might want to wear a jacket.’ 

Understatement is often used to bring humour to the darkest of situations:

    • When it’s clear that someone is extremely sick or even dead
      • He doesn’t look too healthy.’
    • When it’s clear there’s a major problem, such as the car engine being on fire.
      • I think we might have a slight problem
  • Overstating something is also a common form of verbal irony.  We do this by adding more force or emphasis than is necessary or appropriate to the situation.
    •  After attending a long boring lecture:
      • ‘I’ll die if I have to attend even one of his lectures again.’
  • Dismissing something is a frequent form of irony.
    • Using ‘Yeah right’ to show disbelief instead of agreement.
      • Person A: ‘I think she’ll be on time.’
      • Person B: ‘Yeah right.’
  • A simile /ˈsɪm.ɪ.li/  is an expression used to compare two things and always contain either ‘like’ or ‘as’.  Some are naturally ironic and can be modified in conversations.
    • as clear as mud = not clear
      • Employee A: Is that clear?
      • Employee B: Yeah, as mud.
    • as useful as a hole in the head = useless, not useful, not wanted or needed
      • Person A:  Do you need this?
      • Person B:  Yeah, like a hole in the head.


Irony or Sarcasm?

When we think of irony, we often think of subtle or gentle humour.  But add some attitude with a desire to criticise or mock and it becomes sarcasm – think moody teenager or mean boss.  All sarcasm is verbal irony, but not all verbal irony is sarcasm.  Sarcasm is generally used to be unkind or passive aggressive, it’s used to make fun of someone or something.

For example,

Student A:  I think he wants us to write a report on what our marketing strategy would be. 

Student B:  No shit, Sherlock.

Here Student B is referring to Sherlock Holmes, the famous fictional detective admired for his great intelligence.  This fixed expression (No shit, Sherlock) is used when we want to let someone know they’re stating the obvious. But the same expression said with more amusement in your voice can lessen the blow and it’s ironic or sarcastic.

No shit, Sherlock’ could also be replaced with many alternatives, such as:

    • ‘Obviously.’ (this can also be shortened to ‘Obvs.’
    • ‘You don’t say.’
    • ‘No.’
    • ‘Nah.’

What about ‘roasting’?

My eleven year old and her friends love to roast one another.  The urban dictionary defines roasting as being ‘tactfully mean (snarky) without being mean-spirited when poking fun at someone, teasing and even mocking them.  When someone has been on the receiving end of a ‘roasting’ they all laugh in delight and shout ‘roasted.’


Finally, using ‘irony’ in a sentence

  • ‘England is famous for its food,’ she said with heavy irony.
  • There was a note of irony in his voice.
  • She said it without a hint/trace of irony.


Want to hear some examples of irony?  – Watch this video

Ed.Ted: What is Verbal Irony? by Christopher Warner


Vocabulary you may need some help with

(definitions and examples from the Cambridge Dictionary)

  • Literal – The literal meaning of a word is its original, basic meaning.
    • The literal meaning of the word television is ‘seeing from a distance’.
    • You will need to show more than just a literal understanding of the text.
  • Get it – in this context, to understand.
    • I didn’t get what he said because the music was so loud.
      I told that joke to Sophia, but she didn’t get it.
  • Banter – friendly conversation, good-humoured, playful, teasing conversation
    • My words were meant as lighthearted banter.
    • I do not want to become involved in that kind of banter.
  • Smirk – a satisfied or pleased smile the result of knowing something often not known by someone else
    • “Maybe your husband does things that you don’t know about,” he said with a smirk.
    • “I told you it would end in disaster,” said Polly with a self-satisfied smirk on her face.
  • Subtle – not obvious, achieved in a quiet way which is good/clever.
    • The room was painted a subtle shade of pink.
    • The play’s message is perhaps too subtle to be understood by young children.
  • Mock – to make something/someone appear stupid
    • They were mocking him because he kept falling off his bike.
    • She made fun of him by mocking his limp.
  • Passive aggressive – being unwilling, unhelpful or unfriendly without openly expressing your anger
    • If managers are passiveaggressive in their behavior, it can end up stifling team creativity.
    • He is also known for being very passive-aggressive.
  • Poke fun at someone/something – make someone/something seem stupid by making jokes about them/it
    • Late night comedy often poke fun at politicians.

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