A photograph of the outside of a factory building and smokestack. The building has a sign painted on it that reads: “Paradox Iron: Steel Fabrication.”

Source: paradox iron, kara brugman, Flickr

In the introduction to this lesson, you learned that a paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement that actually expresses a possible truth. A paradoxical statement may seem to defy logic on the surface, but upon closer reading, reveals an insight. In identifying paradox, look for the following two features:

Consider the following sentence:

Life looks poorest when you are richest.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Why I
Left the Woods”

The two words that seem to be the opposite of each other are poorest and richest. You might be tempted to define poor as “lacking wealth and possessions,” but consider other meanings for poor such as “bad,” “meager,” “inferior,” “deficient,” and “mediocre.” Perhaps Thoreau is suggesting that money doesn’t buy happiness, and having wealth and many possessions may actually result in a mediocre life, deficient in the joys that riches cannot bring. In that sense, life does seem “poor” when you concentrate only on the accumulation of wealth.

Now, it’s your turn to analyze paradoxical statements. Read each sentence below and choose the possible truth that each one conveys. The first one has been completed for you.

icon for an interactive exercise
1. There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.

—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

    1. Acquiring what you crave most in life may turn out to be as heartbreaking and terrible as suffering the loss of what you yearn for most.
    2. There is no way to be happy in life.

If you chose a, you correctly identified the truth Shaw is trying to convey.

2. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Why I Left the Woods”

a. Lack of contact with people may result in isolation and loneliness.
Try again.
b. Being alone may be more agreeable and satisfying than spending time with another person.
Correct! Thoreau went on to say that we can be lonely even when we are in the company of others.

3. Sorrow makes us all children again, destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest knows nothing.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1842 journal

a. People experience grief similarly, regardless of how smart they are.
Correct! Emerson recognizes that all human beings experience grief similarly. He uses the paradox “The wisest knows nothing” to convey that having more education or wisdom doesn't stop us from feeling sadness the way children feel it, immediately and sincerely.

b. Becoming a child is the only way to be wise.

Try again.

4.  . . . when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

—Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person

a. Self-approval comes before, and is a necessary step to, transformation.
Correct! Although self-acceptance and change seem contradictory, Rogers’s point is that we must tolerate ourselves as we are before we can begin to improve.
b. Some people will never accept themselves the way they are; some will never change.
Try again.

Have you ever responded to an invitation with a “definite maybe”? Have you described the noise in the school cafeteria as a “dull roar”? Have you and your friends discussed the “living dead” in the Twilight series? If so, you were using oxymorons.

An oxymoron is a compressed paradox consisting of words that are usually contradictory. When the words are placed next to each other, they convey some truth or insight. A classic example is the expression “jumbo shrimp.” By definition, a shrimp is a small creature, and anything described as “jumbo” is unusually large. A restaurant might advertise jumbo shrimp on its menu to persuade diners that they are getting a good value (big shrimp) for their money.

A photograph of a sign that reads: “Sign Not Yet in Use”

Source: Sign not yet in use, Rob Watling, Flickr

Consider the following examples of oxymorons:

alone together tough love awfully good
old news silent scream cheerful pessimist

Read the excerpt below from an essay about oxymorons in Nicholas Brealey’s Much Ado About English. Identify the oxymorons by clicking on them. (Hint: You should find 12 oxymorons.)

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Image of winking smiley face

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

Like irony, sarcasm, and paradox, oxymorons are found in fiction, nonfiction, and everyday speech. When you are asked to identify irony and its close friends (sarcasm, paradox, and oxymoron), don’t forget that, at first, they may not be obvious. The irony may be “winking” at you.