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Oxymorons—What Are They and What Are Their Functions?

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An oxymoron is a rhetorical device, but what exactly does it mean and what purpose does it serve? We’ll go over this and provide examples.

Oxymoron: Two opposite words put together. | Opposite words used together
Can you think of an oxymoron you use often?
Quick Summary of Oxymorons
  • An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory words are put side by side to form a phrase. Examples include jumbo shrimp, organized mess, and crash landing.
  • Oxymorons are used for multiple reasons, whether it be to add a dramatic effect, illustrate a rhetorical point, make an audience ponder, or make them laugh.

What Are Oxymorons?

Think of oxymorons (the less common plural is oxymora) as two opposite words put together. That’s not the most technical definition, but that’s exactly what they are. They’re a figure of speech in which two contradictory words are juxtaposed, like original copy. On their own, original and copy can be considered antonyms (words with opposite meanings). However, it’s not uncommon to hear this oxymoron in everyday speech.

Do you have the original copy of the contract?

Below, we’ll go over why oxymorons are used and provide examples.

Common Oxymorons | Oxymoron Phrases | Best Oxymorons
Shrimp is defined as a small shellfish that can be eaten. So, placing the adjective jumbo (which means “very large”) next to it makes jumbo shrimp an oxymoron.

Oxymorons—What Are Their Functions?

As a rhetorical device, oxymorons can serve a few different functions. Oxymorons can:

1. Add a dramatic effect

An oxymoron forces an audience to think and also helps readers better visualize what the writer is writing about. For example, deafening silence is an oxymoron because how can silence be deafening? However, when you read this oxymoron, you might imagine a silence so striking that it leaves you in awe or hyper-aware of it.

2. Add humor and playfulness

Oxymorons can present clever or funny ideas. For example, William F. Buckley popularized comical oxymorons when he said, “an intelligent liberal is an oxymoron.” Some people also jokingly claim that “happily married” and “honest politicians” are oxymorons.

3. Add irony

Some oxymorons at first don’t seem to be an oxymoron at all. But then when you break down the meaning of the words, you’ll see that they are, in fact, contradictory terms. One example of this type of oxymoron is civil war because civil as an adjective can also mean “courteous and polite” (which are things war cannot be).

Oxymoron List—Examples of This Device

Some oxymorons have become a part of our everyday vocabulary. So much so, that we don’t even notice they’re oxymorons. A few examples are:

  • act naturally
  • accurate estimate
  • awfully good
  • only option
  • clearly confused
  • found missing
  • good grief
  • humane slaughter
  • icy hot
  • paper towel
  • pretty ugly
  • seriously funny
  • unbiased opinion
  • calculated risk
  • final draft
  • natural makeup
  • same difference
  • student teacher
  • terribly nice
  • virtual reality

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Oxymorons, like similes and euphemisms, can add an extra element to your writing to make it more relatable, funny, or touching. But nothing is more important for effective writing than using proper spelling and grammar. LanguageTool can check for several different types of errors and can also easily provide synonyms with just a double click. Whether you’re writing in English, Spanish, or German (or more than twenty other languages), LanguageTool can help ensure your writing is terribly good.

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