Grammar Guru: Oh, The Irony!


Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette famously dedicated an entire song to irony in the 1990s. (The lyrics are here, for anyone interested!)

Except there’s just one problem.

Although she spends a good four minutes asking if we find her examples ironic, almost none of them are actually examples of irony.

Irony vs. Coincidence

Unfortunately, she fell foul of a common problem: confusing irony with coincidence.

The definition of irony Alanis is searching for is as follows (according to the Oxford English Dictionary):

A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.

The word “expect” is important here. To decide whether or not a situation can be considered ironic, ask yourself a simple question: what do you expect from that situation?

Consider the following line from the hit song:

“[It’s like] a traffic jam when you’re already late.”

There’s no reason for Alanis to expect to miss all the traffic on the way to work (certainly not one that’s stated here), therefore this is a coincidence, and not irony.

To take another line:

“An old man turned 98. He won the lottery, and died the next day.”

So, what do you expect from this situation?

It’s unfortunate for the old man to die so soon after winning the lottery, but it shouldn’t have been expected that the win would lead to him living on for years. He’d already done quite well in that department!

This is another for the coincidence pile.

10,000 spoons

Finally, let’s take the line:

“It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.”

In order for this line to reach the bar for irony, there needs to be a sense of the expectations in play behind it.

Imagine if Alanis campaigned to have all the world’s knives replaced with spoons, because they are less likely to be used in violent crimes. Then she was the victim of a violent crime, and needed a knife to defend herself, but all she could find was a useless spoon.

That would be ironic; she expected she was making the world safer, but it turned out to be far more dangerous for her.

Admittedly, however, it would not have been quite so catchy set to a melody.

Irony: the other meanings

Irony can also mean the practice of saying one thing and meaning the opposite (best explained in song, here).

Dramatic irony is a different thing altogether. It refers to instances in a play/film/performance when the audience is aware of something that the characters are not.

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Iain McDonald

Iain is Digital Content Editor at the "Friend", making him responsible for managing flow of interesting and entertaining content on the magazine's website and social media channels.