Literary Terms



How would you describe these smiles?

An oxymoron is a combination of words that contradict each other.

The pleasure of an oxymoron comes from the fact that there is tension between the two words.

If I say, "She smiled happily," there is no tension between "smile" and "happily." It's what the reader expects. It's boring.

But if I say, "She smiled sadly . . ."

The word oxymoron means "clever fool" in Greek.

Ahh . . . now that's a whole different story! Now there is tension between her smile and her feelings, forcing the reader to pause and consider: Why is she forcing a smile? Suddenly this character has become a lot more interesting.

Keep this principle in mind: When combining words, the unexpected combination is often the most intriguing.

Consider, for example, this sentence: He ran quickly.

That's not too terrible, but neither is it terribly exciting. Have you considered a more unexpected combination of words?

One of the most legendary oxymorons comes from Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet: "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

Juliet says this line to say goodnight to Romeo at the end of the famous balcony scene. This simple line captures all the complex emotions involved when lovers say goodbye: a mixture of anxiety and excited anticipation at the thought of meeting again.


Instructions for the Quiz

Complete each sentence by choosing the oxymoron (or whichever combination of words is most unexpected).


She __________

  • smiled happily.
  • smiled sadly.

While both answers result in a grammatcially correct sentence, only B is an oxymoron; therefore, the answer is B.