Oxymoron vs. Paradox: What Is the Difference?

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Here’s the difference between oxymorons and paradoxes:

Paradoxes are literary devices that contradict themselves while containing a kernel of truth.

Oxymorons are words that have opposite meanings in combination.

Paradoxes are oppositions of ideas or themes, while oxymorons are contradictions between two words only.

If you want to know all about the differences between an oxymoron and a paradox, then you’re in the right place.

Let’s jump right in!

Oxymoron vs. Paradox: What's the difference? (+ Examples)

What Are the Differences Between an Oxymoron and a Paradox?

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DefinitionA literary device that uses contradictory themes or ideas to convey a valid ideaA combination of two words with opposing or contradictory meaning
How it’s expressedExpressed in a statementBy combining two different words with opposing meanings
ScopeA statement that contradicts itself to add more depth to itUse of two words with contradictory meanings to add a light-hearted or dramatic effect to it
Nature/SpecificityAn opposition between ideas and themes and not merely wordsAn opposition that is purely between words

When people hear the term “oxymoron,” they often mistakenly equate it to “paradox.”

This may be due to the similar sounds in the words or the loosely related meanings, but they’re not as completely interchangeable as their similarities might imply. 

Both deal with seemingly illogical contrasts, but there’s more to the terms than just that.

An oxymoron expresses the absurdity of the language itself using terms that don’t sound like they should go together, but the contrasting terms often result in a logical phrase. 

By its very nature, a paradox is illogical, but paradoxes can also be divided into two broad categories.

One of those categories does include most oxymorons, while the other does not.

What Are Oxymorons and How Are They Different From Paradoxes?

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An oxymoron is a simple mechanical technique in which two, unlike terms, produce a logical result.

Examples of oxymorons include:

  • Awfully good.
  • Wonderfully terrible.
  • Only choice.
  • Alone together.
  • Deafening silence.
  • Crazy smart.
  • Slightly enormous.
  • Massively trivial.

Note that in oxymorons, two words that are opposites are usually used. 

The easiest oxymorons to build are those that use an adverb and an adjective since they make inherent grammatical sense. 

A silence obviously can’t be “deafening,” yet the full phrase is an extremely popular way to describe a tense atmosphere.

Many oxymorons can also be flipped around with a little wordplay.

One of the above examples, “wonderfully terrible,” is mirrored by the phrase “terribly wonderful.” 

Note that the phrase produced tends to mean the opposite of the original phrase, despite the fact that the words used are the same.

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This emphasis on the last word is why we can understand the phrase “awfully good” to translate to “very good” or “extremely good.” 

Based on the syntax rules of the English language, we know that the adjective takes priority over the adverb, so there’s no confusion when combining the terms.

Many readers find oxymorons to be naturally humorous due to the unexpected contrast.

This lends them well to comedy, satire, and sarcastic writing in general. 

They tend to fade into the background when they’re not purposely sought out by a critical reader, making them an excellent way to add invisible comedic jabs to a block of text.

It should be noted that oxymoron, as a technique, is always two adjacent words.

If there are any other words in between, then it would be more appropriate to call that a literary paradox, which we will go over in detail shortly. 

Oxymorons get part of their punch from the proximity of the words and the concision of the technique.

Oxymorons get their name from the Greek words oxys and moronos.

These words mean “sharp” and “dull.”

It would be hard to think of a more appropriate name for the technique than one that actually contains two opposites, after all.

It perfectly sums up exactly what an oxymoron is and how it works.

While oxymorons appear to be paradoxical on the surface, the actual meaning of the phrase is usually reasonable. 

You could say that it’s impossible to be alone and together at the same time, but the reader does immediately understand what it means to be “alone together,” and it does ultimately represent a logical real-world condition.

This doesn’t actually eliminate oxymorons from the blanket term “paradox” entirely, though. 

There’s an entire branch of paradox dedicated specifically to phrases that only superficially contradict themselves, so it can be argued that almost every oxymoron is a paradox.

What Are Paradoxes and How Are They Different From Oxymorons?

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Whether you include oxymorons under the umbrella of paradox or not, it can be said definitively that not all paradoxes are oxymorons. 

Paradoxes are a representation of impossibility in literature and thought.

In literature, paradoxes are often divided into logical and literary paradoxes.

Logical paradoxes are intended to be entirely unsolvable by nature and are a true representation of impossibility.

They have a self-defeating quality and tend to unravel into pure absurdity when further examined.

The most basic way to define a logical paradox is to admit that it uses language, which we usually associate with reason, to create unsolvable nonsense. 

The most used example of a logical paradox is the classic liar’s paradox: “This statement is false.”

This is a perfect example as the sentence ultimately ends up meaning nothing as a result of its own contradictions.

Logical paradoxes are rarely used in literature.

They’re typically incapable of advancing a narrative or adding any context, so when they are employed, it’s typically only for entertainment purposes or to represent pure impossibility.

Literary paradoxes seem to be illogical on the surface but are intended to be analyzed for a deeper meaning that is solvable in the human mind.

Notably, this is where oxymorons fall if you choose to classify them as paradoxes.

“I know that I know nothing.”

Though this is a paraphrased version, this sentence represents a concept that Plato famously attributed to Socrates.

This has since become known as the Socratic paradox. 

The deeper meaning here, according to Plato, is that Socrates’ famous wisdom comes directly from his ability to see himself as a man that knows nothing.

Another infamous paradox, this time in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has the titular character state, “I must be cruel, only to be kind.”

In the text, Hamlet is speaking to his mother. 

His meaning is that while he feels he must be harsh, by keeping her away from Claudius, he ultimately sees it as an act of kindness because he keeps her faithful to her previous husband.

Notably, this particular literary paradox has most of the trappings of an oxymoron.

The key difference here is that Hamlet’s statement is an entire phrase. 

Oxymorons are specifically a two-word literary technique.

So while you could compare his statement to an oxymoron like “gently cruel,” the statement is automatically too long to be considered an oxymoron itself.

The term “paradox” comes almost directly from a single word, the Latin “paradoxon,” which refers to an incredible or unbelievable statement.

The root concept that a paradox should be unbelievable permeates every version of the term.