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The English language can be tricky and misunderstood. This is perhaps nowhere more true than with the rhetorical devices irony, sarcasm, satire, and paradox.



What Is Irony?

Irony is when something happens that is the opposite of what was expected. It is one of the most misunderstood figures of speech in common English—many people think that the definition of irony has to do with coincidence or bad luck, when in fact it’s more closely related to the subversion of expectations. There are three types of irony in the literary genre:

  • Verbal irony: Verbal irony is when a character says something that is different from what they really mean or how they really feel. If the intent of the irony is to mock, it is known as sarcasm. Socratic irony is a type of verbal irony, where a person feigns ignorance in order to entice someone else to make claims that can then be argued with.
  • Situational irony: Situational irony occurs when there is a difference between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. For example, a fire station burning down is a case of situational irony.
  • Dramatic irony: Dramatic irony is when the audience knows more than the characters. The characters’ actions have a different meaning for them than they do for the audience, which creates tension and suspense. When used in tragedies, dramatic irony is referred to as “tragic irony.”

3 Examples of Irony

Irony can be challenging to identify, but it’s all about expectation:

  1. Example of verbal irony: Verbal irony would occur if a character walked out into a horrible blizzard and said, “What nice weather we’re having!”
  2. Example of situational irony: If a police officer were conducting a gun safety course and accidentally shot himself in the foot during the class, that would be situational irony.
  3. Example of dramatic irony: Shakespeare often made good use of irony in his literary works, and the ending of Romeo and Juliet is an embodiment of dramatic irony; the audience knows that both lovers are alive, but neither of the lovers knows that the other is still alive. Each character drinks their poison without knowing what the audience knows.
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What Is Sarcasm?

Sarcasm is an ironic remark meant to mock by saying something different than what the speaker really means. Since sarcastic statements run contradictory to the speaker’s intent, they can often be difficult to identify in written English and usually rely on spoken-word verbal cues (such as a mocking tone of voice for emphatic effect) and context.

3 Examples of Sarcasm

Sarcasm means that the speaker intends to convey the opposite of the meaning of their words, so they often rely on a sarcastic tone or a specific context. Here are some examples:

  1. When something bad happens: “Oh, this is exactly what I needed today!”
  2. When someone is doing something too slowly: “Could you please do that more slowly?”
  3. When something is uninteresting: “I’m delighted that I get to be here for the next three hours.”

What Is Satire?

Satire is a type of wit that is meant to mock human vices or mistakes, often through hyperbole, understatement, sarcasm, and irony. Nowadays, satirists most commonly use this form of humor to expose political missteps or social inadequacies in everyday life, sometimes with the goal of inspiring change. Learn more about satire in our guide here.

2 Examples of Satire

Satire is prevalent in today’s pop culture. Here are a few places you’re likely to run into it:

  1. Political cartoons: Political cartoons usually offer biting political satire with a drawing that overexaggerates the actions of an elected official or any newsworthy figure, depicting a situation to make a cutting commentary.
  2. Sketch comedy: Sketch shows like Saturday Night Live have a long tradition of poking fun at elected officials, often overexaggerating their faults (especially self-righteous faults) through the use of humor. Chevy Chase’s impersonation of Gerald Ford, Will Ferrell’s version of George W. Bush, and Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton are all satirical portrayals of real political figures.

What Is Paradox?

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A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself but may also contain a kernel of truth. Paradox is closely related to oxymoron, in which two words are seemingly contradictory but somehow true. There are two overarching types of paradoxes:

  1. Logical paradox: This is a contradiction that defies logic and is considered unresolvable. The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea is credited for devising several famous logical paradoxes.
  2. Literary paradox: This is a contradiction that resolves to reveal a deeper meaning behind a contradiction. It is a common literary device.

2 Examples of Paradox

Here are two famous examples of paradoxes:

  1. Example of logical paradox: In “Achilles and the Tortoise,” Zeno posits that motion is nothing but an illusion. If a tortoise were to get a head start in a footrace with Achilles, the tortoise would hold a lead since Achilles, fast as he might be, would have to continually close the distance between them.
  2. Example of literary paradox: In Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, the character Lord Darlington says: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Wilde uses the contradicting ideas in this statement to illustrate the character’s inability to resist temptation.

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