Ready for one of the most difficult and commonly confused literary terms out there? Yes, that’s right: it’s IRONY! In this lesson, explained and hand-illustrated by me, your friendly English teacher, we’ll discuss the definition and examples of the words “irony” and “ironic,” then enumerate three types of irony: situational, verbal, and dramatic — as well as a bonus, tragic and comic irony.
Yes, we’ll also analyze a certain “Ironic” song. Ready? Let’s go!
Irony Definition and Meaning
The easiest definition of the noun “irony” is: a surprising, funny, or sad contrast between something that is is said or done, with what is expected or true. Something is “ironic” (an adjective) if it contains that contrast. This is much easier to illustrate through examples, so let’s check out instances of each irony type.
Types of Irony
It is generally considered that there are three types of irony: situational, verbal, and dramatic — but there are sub-categories of each, so it can be argued that there are more than three. Here are the classic 3 types of irony, explained.
What is Situational Irony?
Situational irony is when something that happens (a “situation”) is in stark contrast with what is expected, causing a funny, surprising, sad, or jarring effect. In my illustrated example below, a teacher is saying, “The award for most kind and polite student goes to…” and is suddenly interrupted by the student who’s supposed to get the award jeering, “I don’t want your goofy award!”
This is an example of situational irony, because you would EXPECT that the student getting an award for kindness and politeness would be gracious and lovely in accepting the prize. When what actually happens is that she’s rude, the contrast between what happened and what is expected is extremely ironic!
Situational Irony Examples:
Here are more examples of situational irony.
• A fire station burns down. (This is ironic because you would expect that a fire station would be fully prepared to prevent fires.)
• An English teacher mixes up “your and you’re.” (This is an example of situational irony, because you’d expect an ELA educator to know spelling and grammar rules.)
Understand situational irony now? Great! On to the second type of irony: verbal irony.
Verbal Irony Definition
Verbal irony is when there is a contrast or startling juxtaposition between what is said, and the truth or reality. “Verbal” means “relating to words,” so this form of irony is about words, not actions. In my illustration below, you can see one example: The fluffy pink monster is grumbling, “What a beautiful day,” which is ironic because it is actually a disgusting, stormy day.
You can tell from the monster’s grumpy expression — as well as the contrast with the reality of the stormy weather — that the beast’s utterance is dripping with verbal irony.
Verbal Irony Examples:
Other examples of verbal irony include…
• A woman with bandages all over her body grunts, “I’m a perfect picture of vibrant health,” when a visitor to the hospital asks how she’s doing. (This is ironic because the sentence states the opposite of the woman’s wounded reality. She might be using verbal irony here to highlight the sadness of her situation, or to add some humor to lighten the mood.)
• A person pulls a burned casserole out of the oven and declares, “Well, I’ve always been known for my excellent cooking skills.” (This is verbal irony because the reality is clearly that the person stinks at cooking, and everyone knows it, so they’re stating the opposite of what is true to create a funny contrast.)
Verbal Irony vs. Sarcasm
What’s the difference between sarcasm and verbal irony? While sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, the former (sarcasm) is usually used to be a little bit mean, whereas the latter (verbal irony), has a lighter and kinder flair to it.
For example, if someone walks in wearing a ridiculous brightly-colored shirt, a sarcastic comment might be, “Nice shirt,” which is meant to be rude, highlighting the questionable fashion choice through the contrast between the words and reality. Checking a person’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language can help identify the intent or emotions behind someone using sarcasm or verbal irony.
Is Verbal Irony Figurative Language?
In fact, verbal irony is a form of figurative language. It is closely related to the figure of speech called “understatement,” in which something is said in an exaggeratedly less extreme way than the reality (for example, “She’s pretty tall,” to describe a 7-foot-tall woman). Verbal irony is a more extreme form of understatement, because verbal irony is when what is said is the COMPLETE opposite of the truth. For example, saying about the 7-foot-tall woman, “She’s tiny.”
Now it’s time to move on from verbal irony to my favorite type… dramatic irony!
The Meaning of Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is sooooo fun and shocking — in literature, plays, TV, movies, and REAL LIFE! The definition of dramatic irony is: the tension that arises when the audience knows something that the characters being watched (or read about) do not. That contrast between what is said or done and the secret context the audience is privy to makes you want to scream — in an exciting way.
A classic example is shown in my illustration, below: For most of Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the protagonist, Othello, thinks that the antagonist, Iago, is his friend. The audience, however, knows that Iago is actually plotting behind Othello’s back, working to manipulate and hurt him. Dramatic irony is key in building suspense, because you want to keep watching to find out how the conflict of these hidden secrets will be resolved.
Dramatic Irony Examples:
You know that dramatic irony is happening when you want to yell at the stage, screen, page, or world in front of you: “NO! The reality is not what you think — watch out!” Here are more examples…
• You know that Tom has a crush on Natalie, but you’re sworn to secrecy. You hear Natalie sigh, “Tom hates me so much, but I think I love him!” (This is dramatic irony, because there’s a contrast between what Natalie thinks — that Tom hates her — and the secret reality that you, the audience to this drama, know: that Tom actually has a crush on her!)
• In a movie, you watch a woman rob a bank with a mask on. Later, she puts on a policewoman’s uniform and comes to the scene of the crime to help investigate. Her fellow police-folks exclaim, “Thank goodness you’re here to help us find this terrible robber.” (This is an example of dramatic irony because you, the audience, know the secret information that the woman is the robber, but that contrasts with her clueless colleagues thinking she’s just another policewoman there to help out.)
Comic and Tragic Irony
Besides the three types of irony explained below, there also are categories of “comic irony” and “tragic irony,” which can be subcategories of verbal, situational, or dramatic irony. “Comic irony” is when the contrast between what is said and done and reality is funny. “Tragic irony” is when this contrast is sad. Tragic irony, especially, can be used to highlight a powerful theme (life lesson) in a book or movie.
Ooo, another bonus type of irony: Socratic irony! This refers to what happens when a speaker pretends to be ignorant about something, and asks questions that lead the responder into statements that highlight a point or truth. This is irony because there’s a contrast between the fake-ignorant questions, and reality. It is named after the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. (Irony has been around a long time!)
If you think about it, Socratic irony is a combination of verbal irony and dramatic irony. It’s verbal because the speaker is purposely saying things that are the opposite of reality. It’s dramatic irony, too, because the people watching know that the questioner is only pretending to be ignorant, but the responder does not.
Is the Song “Ironic” Actually Irony?
Now, any discussion of the meaning of the word irony needs to address the 1996 Alanis Morissette song, “Ironic.” Unfortunately, the only thing ironic about the song “Ironic” is that it doesn’t really contain any irony at all. If you’d like to see a “fixed” version of the lyrics, check out “It’s Finally Ironic” by Rachel Hurwitz.
Here’s an example of how Hurwitz fixed the lyrics to actually be examples of irony. In the original Alanis song, there’s the line, “It’s like rain on your wedding day.” This is not ironic — it’s just an example of something that’s annoying.
In the fixed Hurwitz version, however, the line becomes: “It’s like rain on your wedding day, a day and place you chose because it’s known not to rain.” This example actually IS ironic because what happens is the opposite of what you’d expect.
VIDEO: 3 Types of Irony
“The Irony Is Not Lost on Me”
Some great words that make you sound smart are found in the phrase: “The irony is not lost on me.” What does this sentence mean? It indicates that you realize something is ironic, meaning that there is a contrast between what happened or was said, and the truth, or what was expected. For example, the irony is not lost on me that I have struggled with understanding the concept of irony in the past, even though I’m an English teacher!
Types of Irony, in Sum
I hope you’ve enjoyed this English lesson on types of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic. A huge shout-out to the three ELA teachers from around the country who wrote to me requesting I create this article! If there’s a lesson YOU would like to see me make for the benefit of your students, do let me know. Meanwhile, what are your favorite examples of irony? Do share!
Irony Posters and Lessons:
Below are some affordable options I created to bring this irony lesson into your classroom: a slide deck version of this irony lesson, a set of printable posters, and a pre-printed “Types of Irony” poster. Thanks in advance for supporting this small, one-woman business, and enjoy this delightful literary device!
The author and artist, Lillie Marshall, is a National Board Certified Teacher of English who has been a public school educator since 2003, and an experienced Reiki practitioner since 2018. All art on this site is original and hand-drawn by Lillie. She launched DrawingsOf.com Educational Cartoons in 2020, building upon the success of her other two sites, AroundTheWorldL.com (established 2009) and TeachingTraveling.com (founded 2010). Subscribe to Lillie’s monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media to stay connected!