Paradox in English Grammar

Definition and Examples

visual paradox
A visual paradox.

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A paradox is a figure of speech in which a statement appears to contradict itself. This type of statement can be described as paradoxical. A compressed paradox comprised of just a few words is called an oxymoron. This term comes from the Greek paradoxa, meaning "incredible, contrary to opinion or expectation."

According to the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, paradoxes are "mostly used for expressing astonishment or disbelief at something unusual or unexpected" in everyday communication (Sloane 2001).

Examples of Paradoxes

A paradox can have positive or negative connotations, can be used in writing or speech, and can be used individually or within a set of paradoxes—these are flexible devices. To get a better understanding of what a paradox is and how it may be used, read these quotes and examples.

  • "Some of the biggest failures I ever had were successes." -Pearl Bailey
  • "The swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot," (Thoreau 1854).
  • "If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness," (Smith 1863).
  • "I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love." -Mother Teresa
  • "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength," (Orwell 1949).
  • "Paradoxically though it may seem ... , it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” -Oscar Wilde
  • "Language ... has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone," (Tillich 1963).
  • "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." -C.S. Lewis
  • "Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America—that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement," (Wolfe 1934).
  • "Yes, I must confess. I often find myself more at home in these ancient volumes than I do in the hustle-bustle of the modern world. To me, paradoxically, the literature of the so-called 'dead tongues' holds more currency than this morning's newspaper. In these books, in these volumes, there is the accumulated wisdom of mankind, which succors me when the day is hard and the night lonely and long," (Hanks, The Ladykillers).
  • "By paradox we mean the truth inherent in a contradiction. ... [In the paradox] the two opposite cords of truth become entangled in an inextricable knot ... [but it is] this knot which ties safely together the whole bundle of human life," (Chesterton 1926).

The Paradox of Catch-22

By definition, a catch-22 is a paradoxical and difficult dilemma comprised of two or more contradictory circumstances, thus rendering the situation inescapable. In his famed novel Catch-22, author Joseph Heller expands on this. "There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to," (Heller 1961).

Love's Paradox

Many complicated but fundamental aspects of life could be deemed paradoxical before there was even a term for such a phenomenon—love is one of these. Martin Bergmann, playing Professor Levy, talks about this in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors. "You will notice that what we are aiming at when we fall in love is a very strange paradox.

The paradox consists of the fact that, when we fall in love, we are seeking to re-find all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted upon us. So that love contains in it the contradiction: the attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past," (Bergmann, Crimes and Misdemeanors).

The Evolution of Paradox

Over the years, the meaning of paradox has somewhat changed. This excerpt from A Dictionary of Literary Terms tells how. "Originally a paradox was merely a view which contradicted accepted opinion. By round about the middle of the 16th c. the word had acquired the commonly accepted meaning it now has: an apparently self-contradictory (even absurd) statement which, on closer inspection, is found to contain a truth reconciling the conflicting opposites. ... Some critical theory goes so far as to suggest that the language of poetry is the language of paradox," (Cuddon 1991).

Paradox as an Argumentative Strategy

As Kathy Eden points out, not only are paradoxes useful as literary devices, but also as rhetorical devices. "Useful as instruments of instruction because of the wonder or surprise they engender, paradoxes also work to undermine the arguments of one's opponents. Among the ways to accomplish this, Aristotle (Rhetoric 2.23.16) recommends in his manual for the rhetorician exposing the disjunction between an opponent's public and private views on such topics as justice—a recommendation that Aristotle would have seen put into practice in the debates between Socrates and his various opponents in the Republic," (Eden 2004).

Kahlil Gibran's Paradoxes

Paradoxes lend a certain surreal quality to writing, so writers with this vision in mind for their words are fond of the device. However, excessive use of paradoxes can make writing murky and confusing. Author of The Prophet Kahlil Gibran employed so many thinly-veiled paradoxes in his book that his work was called vague by writer for The New Yorker Joan Acocella. "At times [in The Prophet by Khalil Gibran], Almustafa’s vagueness is such that you can’t figure out what he means.

If you look closely, though, you will see that much of the time he is saying something specific; namely, that everything is everything else. Freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life. So, whatever you’re doing, you needn’t worry, because you’re also doing the opposite. Such paradoxes ... now became his favorite literary device. They appeal not only by their seeming correction of conventional wisdom but also by their hypnotic power, their negation of rational processes," (Acocella 2008).

Humor in Paradoxes

As S.J. Perelman proves in his book Acres and Pains, paradoxical situations can be just as amusing as they are frustrating. "I dare say that one of the strangest contradictions to beset contradiction fanciers recently was the situation confronting anybody who was seeking shelter in New York City.

Not only were hotel rooms scarcer than the heath hen—after all, you could pick up an occasional heath hen before Christmas if you didn't mind going into the black market for it—but the reason for their scarcity was that most of them were occupied by people who had flocked to the National Hotel Exposition to discuss the scarcity of hotel rooms. Sounds paradoxical, doesn't it? I mean, if there aren't any other paradoxes around," (Perelman 1947).

Sources

  • Acocella, Joan. “The Prophet Motive.” The New Yorker, no. 2008, 30 Dec. 2007.
  • Allen, Woody, director. Crimes and Misdemeanors. Orion Pictures, 3 Nov. 1989.
  • Chesterton, G. K. The Outline of Sanity. IHS Press, 1926.
  • Coen, Ethan, and Joel Coen, directors. The Ladykillers. 26 Mar. 2004.
  • Cuddon, J.A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. 3rd ed., Blackwell, 1991.
  • Eden, Kathy. "Plato's Rhetoric of Education." A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism. Blackwell, 2004.
  • Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Simon & Schuster, 1961.
  • Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Harvill Secker, 1949.
  • Perelman, S.J. "The Customer Is Always Wrong." Acres and Pains. London Heinemann, 1947.
  • Sloane, Thomas O., editor. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Smith, Alexander. "On the Writing of Essays." Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country. Strahan, 1863.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Beacon Press, 1854.
  • Tillich, Paul. The Eternal Now. Scribner, 1963.
  • Wolfe, Thomas. You Can't Go Home Again. Simon & Schuster, 1934.