How to tell if you’re using ‘irony’ or ‘sarcasm’

It's a fine line

A father and daughter were deep in discussion over breakfast at a diner. “That’s not irony, that’s sarcasm,” the father said of something the daughter had pointed out. “No,” she answered. “Irony is to point out the absurdity of something. Sarcasm is meant to wound. That’s the difference.”

She’s on to something.

When we wrote about “irony” nearly three years ago, it was to remind that “irony” is not “coincidence.” One news outlet wrote of the “irony” of a man’s return to an old hobby. “It’s ironic because his hobby is raising pigeons — birds which are known for their homing skills, among other things.” That’s funny, interesting, unexpected, maybe, but not “ironic.”

“Irony” is too frequently used to mean an “oddity” or “coincidence,” even though it still doesn’t appear as a definition in most dictionaries. The discussion of whether that usage is acceptable is absent from most usage guides as well, except in entries discussing whether “ironically” is needed to point out supposed “irony.”

Sometimes it is necessary to point it out. It’s so much easier to hear “irony” or “sarcasm” than to read it: A change of tone, an emphasis on a word, a drawn-out syllable, all signal “I’m not saying what I really mean; I’m saying the opposite,” or being “ironic.” But in writing, “‘Yes, she’s very good,’ he said” has no signals to indicate that what was said was not what was meant. “‘Yes, she’s very good,’ he said,” adding italics or other emphasis, could indicate a sarcastic tone or not. So it might be necessary to add the adverb: “‘Yes, she’s very good,” he said sarcastically.

Why “sarcastically” and not “ironically”? Because the remark is mean, said with a sneer. It is, as the daughter said, “meant to wound.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary says “sarcasm” is “a taunting, sneering, cutting, or caustic remark; gibe or jeer, generally ironic.” “Irony,” on the other hand, is most often directed at events or situations, not people. (Someone can be “ironic,” of course, but usually that person is speaking of it, not being the subject of it.) A long wait in a line could yield the “ironic” statement “My, how time flies,” but if, noticing that the cashier can’t count change, someone says, “I guess they’ve got Einstein working up there,” that is “sarcasm.”

Another way to tell is that “irony” often has an element of humor, quirkiness, or oddity. The classic definition of “irony” — a firehouse that burns — isn’t funny, but it is odd. It’s “irony” because the last thing one expects to catch fire is a place housing the people whose jobs are to prevent and fight fires. And while some “irony” is “sarcasm,” it’s a more subtle sarcasm, because it’s mostly directed at things, not people.

One definition of “irony” is the contrast between what a character in a movie, play, or novel thinks or says and what the audience knows to be true. So it’s “irony” when the movie audience knows the villain is lurking behind the door as the hero opens it, saying “The bad guy is gone.” But when the villain knocks out the hero and says “Gee, what a smart guy,” that’s “sarcasm.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.