Stop!….Grammar Time: Isn’t It Ironic? (It Isn’t)

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.


Stop!…Grammar Time is an occasional feature that looks at grammar and style questions. Sometime with 90s Top-40 references. Sometimes not.

The main character in Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic is driving around Cape Cod, looking for a suitable place for his father’s (cremated) remains when he has the following thought: “it would be ironic if he got in an accident while driving to scatter the ashes of a man so prone to them.”

There are two problems with this. First, scattering ashes as a metaphor for coming to terms with dead parents is now a cliché (and a particularly feeble one at that).

Second, it isn’t irony. No, for something to be ironic, there must be a disjunction of some kind, usually between the denoted and the connoted. In everyday life, sarcasm is the most common form of irony; the denoted (“No, really. Please tell me more about your cats.”) conflicts with what is connoted by the tone or delivery (“I would rather eat your cat than hear more about its banal antics”).

So, what Russo’s character is thinking here is not ironic, though it might be amusingly coincidental. In fact, this sort of poetic justice has exactly the opposite meaning of irony, for irony highlights the fundamental chaos and absurdity of human life. Poetic justice, or contrapasso as Dante called it, does precisely the opposite; it affirms a central, leveling order to the universe.

Now it’s possible that Russo is being ironic in having his character misunderstand irony, which would imply that the character thinks he has the universe figured out, when really he doesn’t (a classic example of dramatic irony, in which the audience/reader knows something the character doesn’t). However, for this to work, Russo would have to assume that his readers know that irony is being misused, which seems unlikely.

So the most likely scenario is that Russo is misusing the adjective “ironic,” and now that you know the precise definition of irony, or perhaps already did, Russo’s blunder does in the end turn out to be ironic.

And Russo isn’t the only one. I’m not sure who patient zero was for mangling the proper usage of irony, though I will go ahead and blame Alanis Morrissette. Check out how many of her ironic situations aren’t irony at all (remember, irony is about disjunction and opposites:

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day (No: that a 98-year old dies is not a disjunction)
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay (The opposition here is between the black fly and the white wine. These I suppose are opposites, but then color quality seems a thin basis for irony)
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late (Again, this is more unfortunate timing than an opposition)
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think

It’s like rain on your wedding day (Bad luck)
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid (vaguely ironic)
It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take (Not even close to irony)
Who would’ve thought… it figures (Actually, irony shouldn’t “figure” at all)

Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought
“Well isn’t this nice…”
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think (So he was afraid to fly and then he died flying. Nope. It would have been ironic if his fear of flying had led him to take trains everywhere and then he was killed in a train accident. The opposition of perceived danger/real safety would have supplied the irony)

Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
When you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right
And life has a funny way of helping you out when
You think everything’s gone wrong and everything blows up
In your face (I don’t even see how this is even misused irony, actually. Maybe she’s thinking of Murphy’s Law. Or every episode of Laverne and Shirley)

A traffic jam when you’re already late (Lateness on top of juxtaposition at all)
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break (minorly ironic)
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife (Ok, probably the most solid irony here.)
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife (I would think a necessary characteristic of the man of your dreams would be availability, so this is really more of a definitional error than it is irony.)
And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think
A little too ironic (something cannot be too ironic. How can something be “too opposite”?)…and, yeah, I really do think…


If there is irony here, it’s that Morrissette thinks she can use irony properly, but she doesn’t have a firm grasp of it. I really do think.