When writers use irony, they say one thing and mean something very different. It should not surprise you then that irony causes more trouble for inexperienced readers than anything else. Spoken irony is easier to understand than written irony. A speaker can signal irony with a change in tone or with body language; the speaker’s voice may become sour, sarcastic, or dry, and she may move or gesture in a way that is deadpan, solemn, or neutral. A parent might say ironically to a child with a messy room, “My, what a great job of decorating you’ve done,” or “I can see you’ve been hard at work straightening your room.” Of course, the parent is really saying that the room needs cleaning. The child understands the parent’s message from the parent’s tone and body language as much as through the words the parent actually says.

When we read, we can’t hear the writer’s and characters’ tone of voice or see their body language. To recognize written irony, we have to pay close attention to the context of the passage and the subject and purpose of the entire piece.

If irony makes the writing harder to understand, you might wonder why people use it. Perhaps it’s because irony is said to

Learning to read and appreciate irony is the ultimate test of your skill at reading between the lines and can take considerable practice. This lesson will help you acquire the skills to figure out puzzling or ambiguous statements and situations and will initiate you into the club of readers who get it.

An ironic image of a chalkboard that reads ‘Psychic fair cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances’

Source: “Psychic Fair Cancelled,”, Flickr