I've often been confused by the definition of irony, since it seems to me that more than most words, people like to argue and correct people as to whether something actually does constitute irony or not.

Merriam-Webster gives a very simple definition for irony: (1) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity

"Rain on your wedding day" is a well known example of something widely considered to not be ironic, and I've never understood this. Assume an outside wedding just to make the point easier....no one would plan or hold an outside wedding on a day where rain was expected. Sure, it's not something that can be predicted with accuracy, but there would certainly be an expectation that a wedding planned on a sunny day, would not encounter rain.

Now, getting to the titular question, when I have tried asking for explanations from people, I've never understood the explanations given. They always seem to rely on additional conditions imposed on the dictionary definition.

As an example, as per the rain/wedding day example, some explanations I have received are:

  1. Rain is not something that can be accurately predicted, so you can never have an expectation for no rain, only a hope. -- This seems bogus to me, you can certainly have a reasonable expectation for it not to rain on a certain day, more so in some locales/times than others but still.

  2. That rain is completely independent and unrelated to when someone wants to get married. It's not an unexpected thing that is the opposite of what you would expect. -- This seems flawed as well, because if someone is planning an outdoor wedding, they will certainly be planning for and expecting clear weather, at least that it not be raining.

  3. You can hope for no rain, but rain doesn't care. Rain is not affected by the date you want your wedding. Just because you don't quite have the foresight of multiple weeks doesn't mean rain is some unexpected thing. It's quite a common occurrence. You can be bummed out, but it isn't something inspires irony. They're completely unrelated despite someones feelings about having it on their wedding day. -- This explanation in particular I find quite odd, as it seems to imply a relationship is necessary between the cause of the incongruity and the thing affected by the incongruity for it to be irony. I don't see that as the case, and it isn't really mentioned in the definition.

So, what is the basis for needing a relationship between items in an example for something to be ironic or not?

Merriam Webster further provides two examples:

  1. It's ironic that computers break down so often, since they're meant to save people time.

  2. It is ironic that the robber's car crashed into a police station.

Another explanation:

The robbers thing is ironic because the police are the one thing the robbers would most want to avoid, and in trying to escape them they actually end up crashing into them. Rain on your wedding day isn't ironic, it's just something bad that you wouldn't like. A better example I read would be if you it rained on your wedding day and you were marrying the weather man it'd be ironic, because he's the last person you'd expect to get married in bad weather.

So the consensus seems to be that you can't expect a lack of rain, so therefore it when rain comes it can't be ironic, simply disappointing. I don't understand by any means why you can't expect a lack of rain...in the middle of Summer in L.A. with a forecast showing Sunny days for the next week...it would seem entirely reasonable not to expect rain.

Additionally, I find it hard to see any distinction between the two examples MW provides and the rain/wedding day example.

I especially have trouble understanding how marrying a weather man and having it rain is ironic, but marrying a non weather man, and planning a wedding around weather and having it rain (when forecast said no rain) is not ironic. It seems to come down again, to the items in an example having a relationship.

English is not my first language and I have been having trouble with this for years. Could someone explain to me what all these condition are imposed on top of the definition, because it seems to be random cherry-picking as to whether something is irony or not.

As far as I can tell, as long as there is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result, then something is ironic.

  • M-W has some other definitions too. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/irony
    – NVZ
    Jul 14, 2017 at 14:29
  • @NVZ, Sure but the example I am asking about surely only has to meet one definition to be considered irony? The 'amusing clause' is interesting, I wonder why MW omits it. Difference between US and UK English?
    – Racky M
    Jul 14, 2017 at 14:30
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not really even about the meaning of irony. It's just an invitation to indulge in irrelevant opinionated discussion about the thin dividing line between expected and hoped-for. Jul 14, 2017 at 14:54
  • The different senses of irony with their fuller names have already been discussed at What exactly is "verbal irony". 'Rain on your wedding day' is obviously being used as an example of cosmic irony, the 'fates' not smiling. Jul 14, 2017 at 15:21
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    I am commenting because this was flagged up as a first post. I appreciate the effort that you have put into this post, but you must have been aware that its length and style was different to others. The reason for this is that this is a question and answer site, where questions are "about actual problems" and have "factual...answers" — see the Tour. Many apparent questions starting "Why" turn out to be attempts to project a viewpoint or start a discussion. This seems to me to be the case here and I am voting to put it on hold.
    – David
    Jul 15, 2017 at 10:29

1 Answer 1


This question posits that the provided definition of irony is valid, so it is important to parse it properly. As such, it really should be noted that result is an important word in that definition, and since Merriam-Webster was elected as the due authority, I think their current definition of the word Result is the key to understanding their definition:

  1. a : to proceed or arise as a consequence, effect, or conclusion death resulted from the disease
    b : to have an issue or result the disease resulted in death

There is one other definition on their website, which defers the reader to a definition for the word revert, but it does not fit the context of the provided definition for Irony.

What all three of those explanations have in common is that they try to explain that there is no causal relationship between the rain and the wedding, so one is not the result of the other, and hence the supplied definition for the word Irony would not apply. In order for this definition to apply, the rain would have to be there because a wedding was planned for that day. The explanation you provide for the robber's case differs in that it attempts to explain how crashing into the police station probably resulted from the desire to escape the police. Similarly, the computer caused the waste of time by breaking and needing to be repaired, which is contrary to the purpose of their creation.

Also, even if I posit that the meaning is correct, I do not think the definition is as clear as it could be. I think it would be clearer if it was written like this:

  1. Incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the [probable] or [intended] result.

Alternatively, in this case, I think the following definition of Irony from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesarus may be more helpful than Merriam-Webster's:

Irony … C2 a situation in which something which was intended to have a particular result has the opposite or a very different result:

I prefer interpreting the word like this because an earlier and arguably more appropriate definition of the word is a statement which obviously contradicts what the speaker means, and as such the notion of contradiction is rather central to all of the word's various meanings. However, that is largely a matter that is beyond the scope of this question.

The basic point here is simply that the concept of circumstantial irony does not apply to the given circumstance of the wedding because one thing is not the result of the other.

  • +1 I was preparing an answer based on the lack of consistent incongruity between rain and weddings, but yours popped up first. :)
    – Lawrence
    Jul 14, 2017 at 16:02
  • The problem is that OP is selecting an inappropriate/inadequate definition here. Jul 14, 2017 at 22:13

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