What Is the Purpose of Verbal Paradox?

by | Mar 16, 2021 | Figures of Speech, GrammarSpot | 0 comments

So, you’ve landed here in your quest for answers to that perplexing question, what is a verbal paradox? I will tell you, but before we begin, you must understand the rules. The first rule of paradox is: You do not talk about paradox. The second rule is: Forget the rules.

Let me try this another way: A paradox is a declaration that appears to be conflicting, but upon further investigation, it makes sense. However, you should know I always lie. Or do I? If my sentence is correct, then yes, I do. However, if I always lie, my statement is inherently false, meaning I don’t. My proclamation is contrary to itself, but in some way, accurate. Or is it false?

Let’s move on, shall we? My brain hurts.

verbal paradox


What Is a Verbal Paradox?

A “verbal paradox,” such as “less is more,” refers to a literary device used to engage readers and explain concepts in a nontraditional manner.

This figure of speech originated via mid-16th century Latin from the Greek “para” (contrary to) and “doxa” (opinion). These seemingly self-contradictory phrases reveal an underlying logic. They may be difficult to believe, yet readers can typically reconcile the statements if they think about them more deeply. The remarks are somehow so wrong that they are right.

To simplify, we can break this down into two questions: 1) Is the sentence or phrase contradicting itself? and 2) Is there truth to the statement?

Paradox Definition

What is the definition of a paradox? A “paradox” (noun) is an ostensibly contradictory remark that exposes a hidden truth.


Why Do Writers Use Paradox?

Rather than repeat weak phrases, writers may include verbal paradoxes in their work for various reasons. They can capture the bewildering quality of an event or slow the reader down to make a point by encompassing fallacy and truth simultaneously. Some verbal paradox uses include:

  • Adding humor with witty, paradoxical observations
  • Challenging contradictions in our society
  • Grabbing the attention of the reader
  • Provoking thought on the complexity of a situation
  • Pointing out the error of widely held beliefs
  • Suggesting a greater truth


What Are Some Verbal Paradox Examples?

I’ll bet you use paradox in your writing and speech much more than you realize. Below we’ll list verbal paradoxes, some you may already know, in a series of examples to better highlight this figure of speech. 

Commonly Used Verbal Paradoxes

Some commonly used examples of verbal paradox include:

  • Less is more.
  • The best way out is through.
  • It’s the beginning of the end.
  • The word impossible is not in my vocabulary.
  • Change is the only constant.
  • The more you give, the more you get.
  • You must spend your money to save it.
  • The more you fail, the more likely you are to succeed.
  • If you do not risk anything, you risk everything.
  • If this page didn’t load, click here.

Are you beginning to understand now? Or does it feel like the more you learn, the less you know? I’m starting to feel that paradoxical way, for sure.

Examples of Verbal Paradox in Literature

Communicating an idea as a contradictory concept compels readers to think profoundly about your theory, making it more memorable and meaningful in the process. Some instances of paradox in well-known works include the following:

  • In his anti-utopian satire, “Animal Farm,” George Orwell stated, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This makes a point about how equal treatment promised by the government was far from equal in reality.
  • In “Hamlet,” William Shakespeare’s title character says, “I must be cruel only to be kind.” He sees his decision to kill Claudius as a kindness to his mother, who, as Claudius’s wife, is unknowingly married to her first husband’s murderer.
  • Oscar Wilde used examples of paradox often in his works. In “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the character Cecily says, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” Posing is the opposite of being natural. However, there is an underlying truth to her statement as naturalness does not always come easily.
  • In “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau states, “We are determined to be starved before we are hungry,” making the case that we often rush through life preparing without being present in the moment.

 list verbal paradoxes

Verbal Paradox Examples in Popular Culture

There are many instances of this literary device throughout modern music and movies. A few examples include the following:

  • The song “My Back Pages” by Bob Dylan states, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
  • The Eagles conjured up the disconcerting paradox, “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave.” in the song “Hotel California.
  • In the movie “The Incredibles,” Helen says, “Everyone is special, Dash.” Dash responds with the observation, “Which is another way of saying that no one is.”
  • Tony Montana from “Scarface” says, “I always tell the truth, even when I lie.”

Humorous List of Verbal Paradoxes

What’s better than a paradox? A pair of nurses. All this talk about paradoxes is making my head a little swirly. After all, deep down, I’m shallow. Let’s lighten it up with some examples of funny verbal paradoxes:

  • I am in complete control. Just don’t tell my wife.
  • I’ve decided to think more positively, even though I know it won’t work.
  • “I can resist everything except temptation.” (Oscar Wilde)
  • No one goes to that restaurant. It’s always too crowded.
  • If you’re not here, raise your hand.
  • Do not go near the water until you have learned how to swim.
  • If you don’t get this text, call me.
  • “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?” (George Carlin)


Wrapping Up Verbal Paradox

If I know anything, it’s that I know nothing. However, I now understand a paradox is a statement that is at odds with itself or runs contrary to expectation. It conveys a truth or message in a conflicting way, making readers ponder the significance and emphasizing the meaning.

Now that you understand how verbal paradox works, you can confidently solve the mysteries of the universe. Just don’t brag. You should be proud of your humility. If you have questions about or examples of this figure of speech, leave them in the comments below!

Christy Bligh