Beware of Irony

Marcos Chiquetto mar 13 2023

Irony is the use of words to say the opposite of their literal meaning. That is the problem.

By Marcos Chiquetto

What is irony?

Take a look at a dictionary:

irony (noun)
1. the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning…

For example, you tell a friend that your boss is asking you to work all weekend, and he replies:

— How nice!!

However, when saying this, he makes a facial expression and gestures with his hands in a way that makes it clear the comment is ironic. And you understand that he is saying exactly the opposite.

— So, you boss is asking you to work all weekend. How nice!!

But what happens in written communication? In written language, you can’t make facial expressions or hand movements. That limitation makes the use of irony quite risky.

Carlos Lacerda, a well-known Brazilian politician back in 60´s, was also a teacher at a journalism school. In his classes, he used to say that journalists should never use irony in written language, for there is no punctuation mark to indicate irony: “You have the exclamation mark and the question mark, but you don´t have an irony mark,” he stressed to his students.

So, the point is that the danger in being ironic in written language is that the reader won’t understand the message as irony. In that case, the reader will understand exactly the opposite of what you meant to say. Or it could be that the reader won’t be sure if the message is ironic or not.

For example, Congressman Smith gives a speech, and you write:

— What a speech. I can´t believe it! That Smith guy is a genius!

And the reader is left with a lingering doubt: is it really true you think Congressman Smith is a genius?

Do you really mean the guy is a genious? Is it an irony?

The bottom line is: avoid irony in written language. Otherwise your reader may understand exactly the opposite of what you were intending to say. And what is worse: you may not even be aware of that.

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