A photograph of Jon Stewart and President Obama on the set of the “Daily Show”

Source: 10.27.10ObamaOnTheDailyShow, Pete Souza, Wikimedia

A photograph of Steven Colbert on the set of his show “The Colbert Report”

Source: ColbertBook Pro, Dan Correia, Flickr

A series of U.S. postage stamps featuring the characters form the cartoon series “The Simpsons”. Shown are Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie.

Source: The Simpsons on USPS Postage Stamps, Steve Wilhelm, Flickr

An image of two Saturday Night Live actors, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, on the set of the show.

Source: @jimmyfallon and Tina Fey on SNL Weekend Update, stevegarfield, Flickr

Have you ever watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, or The Simpsons? If so, you have witnessed the use of irony, a literary technique used to create meaning that seems to contradict the literal meaning of events.

Writers and speakers often use irony deliberately, such as when they use sarcasm (verbal irony) to mean the opposite of what they really want to say. That is especially true when irony is used to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny. Writers and speakers may also use paradoxes, contradictory statements that reveal a deeper truth, to add meaning to their ideas and thwart readers’ expectations.

In this lesson, you will learn to evaluate the role of irony, paradox, and sarcasm in literary nonfiction such as speeches and essays. Take a look at the chart below. It contains definitions, examples, and explanations for irony, paradox, and sarcasm.

Term Definition Example Explanation

(This example contains situational irony.)
A disagreement or incongruity between what is said and what is understood, or what is expected and what actually occurs “ . . . when his mother [Elisabet Ney] learned that he had eloped with a teenage girl from Hempstead, her rage was such as to render the break with her son final. Had she forgotten her own cyclonic youth, or had parenthood changed her mind for her?”

—Joseph Jones,
Life on Waller Creek

Elisabet Ney was a famous sculptor whose work can still be found inside the Texas Capitol. She grew up in Germany and was the first woman to attend Berlin University to study sculpting. Sculpting was considered a male vocation in the 1850s. To attend the school, she went on a hunger strike until her father said yes, then stormed the gates of the school until they admitted her on probation. She also secretly married a few years later. The irony lies in the fact that she rejected her son for behaving similarly.

(a form of verbal irony)
The use of mockery, verbal taunts, or bitter irony “We would love to hear what you think.”

—The Sarcasm Society™

This slogan (posted on the Sarcasm Society’s Web site) is an example of a gentle verbal taunt. Visitors to the site may smile at the word love because the meaning is the opposite of what is said: the society would not love to hear from you.
Paradox A statement that seems contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth “ . . . my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

—Simon and Garfunkel,
“Sound of Silence” lyrics

The words sound and silence appear to contradict each other. We think of silence as the absence of sound. There are different interpretations for this song and its words, but one idea is that you might “hear” (or be more open to) some truth or lesson when it’s quiet. 

Now that you know the definitions and have seen examples of irony, sarcasm, and paradox, see if you can you classify each of the examples below.

icon for an interactive exercise

Image of winking smiley face

Source: Oxygen480-emotes-face-wink, Nuno Pinheiro, Wikimedia

In using irony, paradox, and sarcasm, a writer or speaker is “winking” at us, sharing a disguised joke. Just as closing and opening one eyelid is a deliberate, nonverbal method of conveying a message, using irony, paradox, or sarcasm is a written or verbal method of conveying added meaning in words, over and above what's expected or what is actually said.