John Larrysson Column: Sensible Nonsense

Some grammatically correct English expressions appear illogical. This week I will cover a type called oxymorons and how to use them and why not to. The most common structure of an oxymoron is when one word describes another, but also contradicts it. For example:


Pretty: can mean beautiful or very



Ugly: the opposite of pretty



Pretty ugly: very ugly


One of the two words has more than one meaning. The phrase only makes sense with one of the two meanings. The other meaning contradicts the next word, sometimes in an ironic way.

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My advice on using oxymorons is also a bit of an oxymoron. Don't use it, unless you want to. Normally you should not use illogical structures if you can avoid them. Black light is a term meaning ultraviolet light. It sounds more interesting, but most of the time it is better to just use ultraviolet light.

Avoid a structure where meanings contradict themselves. For example: light (not heavy) should not be used with black or dark.


The black light footed bear... (ran into the forest.)


can be written:


The black light-footed bear...



The black nimble bear...


The sentence is not technically wrong either way, but don't use an oxymoron unless you want to sound silly.

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Here are some examples of common oxymorons and after it a better sentence to use.


I did it yesterday night. - I did it last night.



This day has been a nightmare. - This day has been bad.



He drank soya milk from a paper glass. - He drank soya milk from a paper cup.


Oxymorons can be used deliberately for humour or to make a point. People criticising the military may use the term military intelligence as if it were a synonym for being stupid. For example this quotation from the old TV show MASH 4077:


"The North Korean prisoner suspected of espionage, recovering satisfactorily, will be turned over to military intelligence... as soon as somebody can be found with military intelligence"


In this quotation "intelligence" means that part of the military organisation that collects secret information. However the speaker is using both that meaning and the more common meaning of thinking ability. He suggests, without directly saying it, that the military is not intelligent.

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Sometimes the oxymoron's contradiction is used to highlight a new concept. Examples:


In this story the living dead chase the students.



At Ocean Park, Tom Leung felt alone in a crowd.



Electric candles are sold in Mrs. Wong's store.


The living dead describes a type of monster, such as a zombie or vampire. The monster is biologically dead, but still walking around or chasing people. Some people use the term "walking dead" to avoid confusion. To be alone in a crowd means to be without friends and feeling lonely, even though many people are around. Candles are made of wax and provide light by burning the wax; electric candles are electronic fakes.

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An oxymoron can be used to attract attention to a name. For example, Sounds of Silence is the name of a song and album by Simon & Garfunkel. Sometimes the name is accidental and sounds silly, for example an American car called the Cherokee Pioneer. In American history, the Cherokee were native people whom European pioneers fought and robbed.

An oxymoron can be used to describe a contradiction. A boy and girl meet in the evening and talk and say goodbye. However saying goodbye is sad, but it is good or sweet to feel such sadness. It is much better than being lonely.


"Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,



that I shall say good night till it be morrow."



(Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet: Act 2, Scene 2)


(till it be morrow = until it is tomorrow)

They might continue to say goodbye until tomorrow comes. The emotion of love is prone to emotional pain and great joy. Love is sometimes described as bitter sweet, another oxymoron. (Some foodstuffs have conflicting tastes, like sweet & sour sauce or bitter-sweet chocolate.)

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Here are some more common examples. Try to work out the meaning for yourself.


plastic silverware, deafening silence, irregular pattern, serious joke, bricked-up windows, crash landing, awful good, student teacher, civil war, controlled chaos, open secret, organized mess, accidentally on purpose, working vacation, true fiction, steel wool, random order, same difference, jumbo shrimp...


All of these examples use the contradiction to emphasise the contradictory meaning. This emphasis might be used to sound funny. Technically these structures are not wrong, but they appear to show a very awkward second meaning and should be avoided. Don't use them, unless you intend to use that second meaning.

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By John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.