How to Recognize and Use Oxymorons

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  • 0:03 Communication
  • 0:50 Recognizing an Oxymoron
  • 2:32 They Are Important!
  • 3:26 When to Use Oxymorons
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will define the figure of speech called an oxymoron and look at several examples. We will then discuss how to recognize oxymorons and use them correctly in writing.


What makes a conversation exciting? How well do you share stories with others? What makes a good story? Usually, what draws us into a story or conversation is the language being used. We like descriptions, humor, suspense and figurative language, words and language that are different than their literal interpretation. We like figurative language because it adds details and appeals to our senses.

One example of figurative language that we use quite often is an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a figure of speech where two words of opposite meaning are used together. Once we are able to recognize what an oxymoron is, it becomes easier to use oxymorons in our own writing. So, let's learn more about how to recognize and use oxymorons.

Recognizing an Oxymoron

We have all seen examples of oxymorons throughout literature. William Shakespeare was well-known for his oxymorons. For example, in his play Romeo and Juliet, he writes, 'Parting is such sweet sorrow.' Later, Juliet describes her love for Romeo, saying, 'My only love, sprung from my only hate.' 'Sweet sorrow' is an oxymoron because sorrow is sadness. There should be nothing sweet or light-hearted about it. In the second example, Shakespeare relates love to hate, two opposite emotions.

Richard Yates wrote, 'Ralph, if you're gonna be a phony, you might as well be a real phony.' And George Carlin said, 'How is it possible to have a civil war?' In the Yates example, a 'real phony' is an oxymoron because you cannot be genuine and fake. In the Carlin example, it would be impossible to describe war as civil.

Have you ever ordered jumbo shrimp or boneless ribs? Have you ever asked someone for an original copy? Or, have you ever described someone as a big baby? These are all examples of oxymorons. Remember, an oxymoron is when two words of opposite meaning are used together. In the previous examples, jumbo means large, while shrimp is small; original is the first, but a copy is a duplicate; and big is large, while baby usually represents something small.

You can recognize an oxymoron by looking for phrases where two words are used together that logically should not. A few more common examples are: virtual reality, random order, noticeably absent, sweet agony, open secret and awfully good.

They Are Important!

Why are oxymorons important? Oxymorons are important because they allow us to be creative in our descriptions. As a writer, you could describe a person trying to be overheard as speaking in a loud whisper. If a character in a story is sneaky, but looks harmless, you could describe them as a wise fool.

Oxymorons also make us stop and think about what is really possible in our writing: things that may appear to be contradictory actually work really well together. Using oxymorons can help you develop stronger sentence style by adding more description.

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