We talk about more than five different types of irony. No wonder irony is confusing! Keith Houston is the author of the new book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.

Keith Houston, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #385

Getting Irony Right in Writing

If it’s so difficult to use verbal irony in writing, how can you make sure you get it right? Here are a few tips.

  • Become a student of irony. Watch out for effective uses of it, and take note when it doesn’t work. This doesn’t have to be a chore; some of the best examples of verbal irony are the most entertaining. You could start with the Urban Dictionary website, which is brimming with ironic definitions. One of its many definitions of irony, for example, is “of, resembling, relating to, or tasting much like iron.”
  • Know your audience, and don’t use irony if they aren’t expecting it. The editor of the New York Times knows that the front page is not a great place for irony, but that the funny pages at the back most definitely are.
  • In informal writing, such as e-mail or Twitter, don’t be afraid to use emoticons or exclamation marks to get your meaning across. The “winking smiley” is custom made for ironic statements!

If you still find it difficult to use verbal irony in your writing, you’re not alone. Many specialized irony marks have been invented over the years in an attempt to make things easier. Back in 1668, an English vicar proposed to use the inverted, Spanish-style exclamation mark to punctuate ironic statements, while New York Daily News journalist Josh Greenman revived it again in 2004. The reversed question mark, opening to the right rather than the left, was used in England at the end of the seventeenth century and again in end-of-the-century France. And these are just the marks that you can type with a computer: many other more elaborate designs have also sunk without trace.

So take heart: writers have been struggling with irony for hundreds of years. In the end, the best kind of irony is the kind that your readers notice and appreciate, and knowing when to play things straight is as important as when to lay it on thick.

Keith Houston runs the popular blog Shady Characters and is the author of the new book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.