Communication 101

What Is an Oxymoron and Should You Avoid Them?

June 6, 2022
5 Min Read

An oxymoron is one of the most common figures of speech. It usually includes one or two seemingly contradictory words next to each other. Writers and literary experts have been using oxymorons for centuries, and you likely hear (and use) these literary devices in everyday life, even if you don’t realize it.

Oxymorons can enhance business communication, provided you don’t overuse them and confuse your message. Below, Poised explains oxymorons in more detail, provides some common examples and discusses how to use them effectively.

What Is an Oxymoron?

An oxymoron is similar to a paradox in that it's a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. These terms typically have opposing meanings, such as "original copy," "poor health," and "old news." The primary reason oxymorons can be confusing is that they seem illogical on the surface but make sense in context.

The definition of oxymoron is a combination of contradictory or mismatched words. It's simplest to think of it as a literary device used to juxtapose contradictory words. Used most frequently in poetry and literature, oxymorons can extract new meaning from a word or phrase.

The original word oxymoron itself is an oxymoron. The etymology traces back to Greece. The ancient Greek root “oxy/Oxus” means “keen” while “mōros” means “foolish''. This translates along the lines of "cleverly stupid" or "sharply dull." While there is no shortage of oxymorons used in modern-day English, many of which can be traced back for millennia.

Oxymoron vs. Paradox

Understandably, oxymorons and paradoxes are easily confused because they both represent scenarios of contradictory terms. With that said, they are distinct literary devices, and each is used for specific purposes. The biggest difference between the two is that an oxymoron is typically one or two words, while a paradox is a statement.

A paradox contradicts itself while also remaining true. At first, the statement might appear unrealistic or illogical, but further reflection reveals that it's based on sound reasoning and logic.

Another way oxymorons and paradoxes defer is that oxymorons employ contradictory words while paradoxes use opposing ideas. In most cases, a paradox encompasses a standalone sentence, but it sometimes spreads through an entire paragraph.

If you want to highlight the contrast between the meanings of two different words, you'll use an oxymoron. If you want to showcase complete ideas that contradict one another, you'll use a paradox.

Not surprisingly, you can go much deeper with a paradox because you have more space to explore philosophical concepts and complicated themes. Oxymorons limit you to the individual words in question.

These example sentences feature well-loved paradoxes:

  • The more you try to impress people, the less impressed they will be.
  • The more you fail, the more likely you are to succeed.
  • People who can't trust can't be trusted.
  • You have to spend money to make money.
  • Slow and steady wins the race.

What Are Some Examples of Oxymorons?

Can you identify the oxymorons you hear and use in your daily routine?

Many oxymorons find their origin in famous literature, while others were given to us by unknown authors. Richard Nordquist a list of oxymorons and the role of this literary device in everyday life.

Here are some common oxymorons, some of which refer to classic and pop-culture works:

  • Alone together
  • Awfully good
  • Bittersweet
  • Deafening silence
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Melancholy merriment (Lord Byron, 1819)
  • Minor miracle
  • Same difference
  • Small crowd
  • "The Sound of Silence" (Paul Simon, 1965)
  • "Sweet Sorrow" (Shakespeare, 1595)
  • Unbiased opinion

As you can see, each of the above phrases contains contradictory terms but carry a certain level of truth. When used strategically, oxymorons can enhance your message and engage your audience.

Should You Avoid Using Oxymorons?

It's not hard to see how filling your vocabulary with oxymorons could confuse your message. Using too much figurative language can distract your listeners and harm your reputation as a communicator. Yet, when harnessed appropriately, oxymorons can work in your favor.

Are Oxymorons Formal or Casual?

Formal and casual (a.k.a. "informal") communication are the two main types of business communication. Formal communication refers to communication that occurs through pre-defined organizational channels.

Most of the time, this type of communication happens within a larger organizational structure and allows leadership to effectively share and receive messages with employees.

Casual communication tends to be more relational. It can happen anywhere and typically isn't backed by pre-determined channels. Casual communication is ideal for building relationships between team members as well as between leaders and employees.

You can use oxymorons in formal or casual communication. The same principle applies: use them in moderation to avoid clouding your message and appearing incompetent. It may be easier to imagine oxymorons in informal conversations. However, we all know that quoting classic literature can add a level of sophistication to any discussion!

Are Oxymorons Unprofessional?

Remember that oxymorons are literary devices that add dramatic effect and flavor to speech. In some cases, they can add humor and irony. You can see how these qualities could enhance communication between team members, and therefore, the answer to whether or not oxymorons are unprofessional is: it depends.

The use of oxymorons itself is not enough to determine the competency of a communicator. What matters is how the communicator uses these literary devices.

If a colleague throws in a few oxymorons at your next virtual meeting and they fail to land in the context of the conversation, it may suggest they don't understand what they are saying. Do they know they are talking in oxymorons? Do they know they are making their message confusing to listeners?

On the other hand, a colleague who occasionally delivers a thoughtful oxymoron that truly enhances the conversation can keep the discussion interesting, and the team engaged. Correctly using oxymorons can also explain mundane scenarios in a fresh way. So, as long as you understand oxymorons and execute them appropriately, there's nothing unprofessional about them.

Can Oxymorons Be Offensive?

As with any figure of speech (or any language, for that matter), oxymorons can be offensive. It depends on who is in the room — in-person or virtual.

The safest approach is to know precisely which oxymorons are a part of your vocabulary and to ensure none of them could hurt the feelings of any of your team members. It's tricky to avoid offending everyone all the time, but understanding the language you use will go a long way in helping you maintain healthy working relationships.

When To Use Oxymorons in Speech

Okay, we've covered some good ground on oxymorons. Now, let's briefly touch on a couple of practical strategies for incorporating them into your speech:

Use Oxymorons for Humor

One of the best aspects of oxymorons is that they provide an excellent platform for entertaining your audience and showcasing your sense of humor. Contradictory words tend to work well in jokes and clever statements. A well-placed oxymoron can make you come across as funny and sophisticated.

For example, Dolly Parton once remarked on how much money it takes to look cheap. Mark Twain reflected on how a solid impromptu speech requires more than three weeks of preparation. Samuel Goldwyn said that verbal contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on.

Notice that all of these ideas convey a clear point that makes sense in context. That's when contradiction is a humorous, profound thing.

Use Oxymorons in Casual Conversation

Do you know the Good Will Hunting bar scene where Clark tries to make Chuckie look foolish by asking him questions about complex topics? Will steps in to put Clark and his pretentious behaviors in their place, resulting in an embarrassed Clark.

Using too many oxymorons in casual settings can make you come across as pretentious. And if you don’t fully grasp the figures of speech you’re using, it can confuse your message. Don’t be Clark. Have fun with oxymorons, but be careful not to overwhelm your listeners!

Learn New Ways To Improve Your Communication

Learning new oxymorons and other figures of speech and how to use them effectively can take your communication skills to the next level. Oxymorons are excellent devices for engaging listeners and making your stories and ideas more compelling. Just make sure you understand why and how to use the terms in your vocabulary.

And if you want to take additional steps to improve your communication with team members, look into the Poised communication coach. It will give you real-time insights and long-term analyses of your communication performance on video calls to boost your skills with each meeting.


100 Awfully Good Examples of Oxymorons | ThoughtCo.

What is an Oxymoron? || Oregon State University

paradox | Definition, Examples, & Facts | Britannica

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