Paradox (English Language): Definition & Examples (2023)

A paradox is a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition that, when investigated, may prove to be well-founded or true. Let's try and break down what a paradox means.

Paradox meaning

A paradox is a statement that seems illogical and contradicts itself. So at first glance, the statement seems not to be true. Once it is pondered a little longer, a paradox can often be found to contain some form of truth.

This might still feel very confusing, and that's okay. Paradoxes are very confusing figures of speech. Let's have a look at some examples.

Paradox examples

We will first have a look at a few common examples of paradoxes. These are all contradictory statements, so let's check them out!

This statement is a lie.

This is a very famous paradox as it seems so simple. But the more you think about it the more complicated it gets. Let me explain:

  • If the statement is telling the truth, then it's a lie. This makes the sentence false.
  • If it's not true, that means that it's a lie, which makes it true.
  • Seeing as it can't both be true and a lie at the same time - it's a paradox.

Once you've got your head around how this works, and how it cannot be both true and a lie at the same time, you can start to understand other paradoxes.

(Video) What is a Paradox? | Reading Literature Lesson

If I know one thing, it's that I know nothing.

Another tricky one! You can probably figure this one out, but it's still self-contradictory and doesn't make logical sense.

  • The person speaking says they know 'one thing', showing they know something.
  • The 'one thing' they know is that they 'know nothing', meaning they don't know anything.
  • They can't both know something and know nothing - it's a paradox.

When you first read this it might seem like it makes sense, and it's only when we consider it a little bit that it becomes more complicated.

Nobody visited Murphy's bar, as it was too crowded.

At first glance this makes sense, you wouldn't want to go somewhere that's always crowded but the wording makes this a paradox.

  • Murphy's bar is known as being 'too crowded', making it busy and full of people.
  • Because of this, nobody is going to Murphy's bar, because it is 'too crowded'.
  • If no one is going, then it won't be crowded, even though the reason they aren't going is that it is too crowded.

This one is a good real-world example of a paradox. I'm sure there have been places you know that are always crowded and you avoid them for those reasons. If lots of people start avoiding a place because it's crowded then it will become empty.

Paradox (English Language): Definition & Examples (1)Fig. 1 - "Less is more" is an example of a paradox.

(Video) WHAT IS A PARADOX? - The Types of Paradoxes

Logical paradox vs. literary paradox

The examples of paradoxes that we have been looking at are all very straightforward - in the sense that they follow strict rules. These are called logical paradoxes. Another paradox type to consider is the literary paradox.

Logical paradox

A logical paradox follows the strict definition of a paradox. They have a few characteristics: they contain a contradictory statement. This statement is always illogical and self-contradictory (eg this statement is a lie).

Literary paradox

You may come across some of these in your studies. They have a looser definition and don't have strict characteristics like logical paradoxes do. In Literature 'paradox' can refer to a person with contradictory characteristics or to an action that is contradictory. This doesn't always have to be self-contradictory (like logical paradoxes), it can be contradictory but still be something that is possible.

Paradox in a sentence - examples in literature

Now we can consider some paradoxes in Literature. Don't be confused between literary paradoxes and paradoxes in Literature - paradoxes found in Literature can be both logical paradoxes and literary paradoxes.

I must be cruel only to be kind (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1609)

This is a literary paradox as it is a contradiction that is possible and is not wholly self-contradictory. There are some instances in which you need to be 'cruel' in one way to be 'kind' in another way. It is also possible to be both cruel and kind at the same time but they are still contradictory.

I'm nobody! Who are you? / Are you - Nobody - too? (Emily Dickinson, ' I'm nobody! Who are you?', 1891)

(Video) What is Paradox | Explained in 2 min

This is an example of a logical paradox as it is self-contradictory. The speaker cannot logically be 'nobody' as they are somebody; They are also speaking to someone, whom they call 'nobody' (again this person must be somebody). This is quite a confusing paradox but is a good example of a logical paradox.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others (George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1944)

This is another example of a logical paradox in literature as it is completely self-contradictory. If all the animals were equal (as the first part of the statement suggests) then there cannot be some animals that receive different treatment and become 'more equal' (like the second part of the statement suggests).

How to spot a paradox

We've now learned about what a paradox is, the different types of paradox, and had a look at some examples - but how do you spot one?

Once you've come across a phrase that seems self-contradictory you can then decide if it is a paradox. There are other language devices that are similar to a paradox so we have to consider those before deciding whether something is a paradox.


An oxymoron is a type of language device that puts two words with opposite meanings next to each other. For example, 'deafening silence' is a commonly used oxymoron. Oxymorons do make sense and aren't self-contradictory but they bring a different meaning when the two opposite words are placed together.


Irony (more specifically situational irony) can be confused with paradox as it is a (sometimes confusing) language technique that defies our expectations.

(Video) 🔵 Paradox Paradoxical - Paradox Meaning - Paradox Examples - Paradox Explained

Two friends own the same dress and are going to a party together. They promise not to wear the same dress. On the night of the party, they both end up wearing the dress thinking that the other promised she wouldn't.

This is situational irony because it defies our expectations without being illogical. The difference is that situational irony is an event or circumstance that defies our expectations rather than actually being illogical.


Juxtaposition can be confused with paradox as it is a broader term referring to ideas or themes that contradict each other. This is similar to the looser meaning of a literary paradox.

You have to be careful when considering whether a quote is a literary paradox or whether it is just an example of juxtaposition. If you're not sure, stick with the assumption that it is juxtaposition as this is a more general term.


Sometimes paradoxes can be confused with a dilemma. Although a dilemma isn't a language device, it is still worth mentioning. The difference between a paradox and a dilemma is easy to learn - a dilemma is a very difficult decision but not contradictory in itself.

Paradox - key takeaways

  • A paradox is a statement that is self-contradictory and illogical but that can contain some truth.

  • There are two types of paradox: logical paradox and literary paradox.
  • Logical paradoxes follow the strict rules of paradox whereas literary paradoxes have a looser definition.

    (Video) Paradox definition and examples

  • Paradoxes can sometimes be confused with oxymorons, irony, juxtaposition, and dilemma.

  • Literary paradoxes are quite difficult to distinguish from juxtaposition - so be careful when trying to define a phrase using this term.


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