What Is Verbal Irony? | Definition & Examples

Verbal irony involves using language in an indirect, non-literal manner, with an intended meaning that is different from (and often opposite to) the literal meanings of the words. This rhetorical technique can serve various purposes, including humor, sarcasm, and persuasion.

Verbal irony example
“By all means, move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.”

In The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly, the exacting editor-in-chief of Runway magazine, uses verbal irony to express frustration with her assistant.

Examples of verbal irony can be found in artistic contexts like literature and film as well as everyday contexts like social media conversations.

What is verbal irony?

Verbal irony involves using words to convey a meaning that is opposite to or markedly different from their literal interpretation, often to emphasize a point, express humor, or level a sharp criticism. When using verbal irony, writers must carefully consider the context, tone, and audience to avoid being misunderstood.

The judicious use of verbal irony can deepen the impact of a message, adding layers of meaning that enrich communication. Irony invites listeners and readers to engage more actively with a text or speech, interpreting nuances and insights beyond the superficial meanings of words.

Types of verbal irony

There are several types of verbal irony:

Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony in which the speaker says one thing but means the opposite, often spoken with a mocking or critical tone. Sardonic comments are similar but typically even darker or more disdainful. Delivery and context are typically used to signal that the intent differs from the literal words. The result can be humorous, scathingly critical, or somewhere in between.

Example of verbal irony: Sarcasm
[Caesar] was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
[…]

I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honorable man.

Mark Antony sarcastically asserts that Brutus is honorable while at the same time casting doubt on his motives for assassinating Caesar in this famous speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 2). Mark Antony’s compelling use of verbal irony successfully rallies public sentiment against Brutus.

Ironic similes

Ironic similes compare two things in an unconventional way, often highlighting unexpected similarities or emphasizing contrasts to create humor or underscore absurdity.

Example of verbal irony: Ironic simile
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”

This ironic simile from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy subverts expectations, adding humor to the scene and contributing to the story’s fantastical imagery.

Understatement

Combining understatement with verbal irony involves deliberately downplaying the significance of something in a way that highlights its true importance or absurdity. This technique can subtly emphasize the contrast between the situation’s reality and the description given, often resulting in humor.

Example of verbal irony: Understatement
“I reckoned I was scared now, too; but in a minute I see I was mistaken—that is, after the first jolt, as you may say, when my breath sort of hitched, he being so unexpected; but right away after I see I warn’t scared of him worth bothring about.”

In this line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck downplays his emotional response to an encounter with his abusive father. Huck’s ironic understatement reflects his character’s combination of naivety and courage.

Overstatement

Combining overstatement with verbal irony involves exaggerating aspects of a situation to an absurd degree. This exaggeration highlights the disparity between the actual circumstances and the described scenario, often to humorous or critical effect, by making the contrast starkly evident.

Example of verbal irony: Overstatement
“I am big enough to admit that I am often inspired by myself.”

In Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope is an ambitious and endearingly flawed character. Here, she sets up an expectation for a self-deprecating comment but finishes with a hyperbolic boast. This line combines overstatement with verbal irony to demonstrate a degree of self-awareness and add dimension to her personality.

Verbal irony examples

Examples of verbal irony are abundant in both literature and everyday communication.

Verbal irony in literature

Verbal irony plays a versatile role in literature. Its functions include developing themes and characters, provoking philosophical reflection, introducing humor, and satirizing societal issues.

Joseph Heller famously used verbal irony in Catch-22 to underscore a central theme of the novel: the absurdity of war.

Example of verbal irony in Catch-22
“You know, that might be the answer—to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.”

In Catch-22, Heller uses verbal irony to emphasize the distorted values, irrational behaviors, and nonsensical rules of military and bureaucratic logic.

Oscar Wilde is known for using complex rhetorical devices such as verbal irony and paradox to express social critiques and philosophical observations.

Example of verbal irony in Lady Windermere’s Fan
“I can resist everything except temptation.”

While the speaker claims to resist “everything,” the statement ironically suggests a complete inability to resist anything at all (there is no need to “resist” something that isn’t tempting). Wilde often uses verbal irony to poke fun at human pretenses and flaws.

Verbal irony in everyday life

Verbal irony is a common element of everyday conversations, especially in friendly banter that employs playful misrepresentation or exaggeration for amusement rather than harm. An example of this facetious approach to humor is an employee who often works overtime jokingly asking, “What’s time off?”

Sarcastic or sardonic comments, in contrast, have more potential to be hurtful. Often referred to as “snark,” this style of humor is especially popular online. An example of Internet snark is the meme expression “Sure, Jan,” used with an ironic tone to express skepticism.

Examples of verbal irony in everyday life
“Thanks, I hate it.” [This ironic expression of feigned appreciation conveys extreme displeasure. It’s often used as a reaction to upsetting content shared online]

“Tell us how you really feel.” [This phrase is used in jest to call out another person’s emphatic or uninhibited negative reaction]

“No, really? You think?” [This ironic phrase is a mocking response used when someone has stated the obvious]

Frequently asked questions about verbal irony

What is the difference between verbal irony and Socratic irony?

Verbal irony involves saying one thing but meaning the opposite, while Socratic irony involves feigning ignorance to provoke critical thinking in others.

  • Verbal irony example: A person arrives late to a meeting, and someone says, “Well, look who decided to join us!”
  • Socratic irony example: In a classroom discussion, a teacher asks seemingly naive questions to lead students to reconsider their assumptions or explore complex concepts further.
What are some examples of verbal irony in “The Cask of Amontillado”?

In Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” he uses verbal irony to create tension and dark humor.

For example, Montresor offers Fortunato wine, saying, “It will help to keep us warm.” This statement is ironic because Montresor is leading Fortunato to a cold, damp catacomb, where he plans to kill him. Later, Fortunado says, “I drink to the dead who lie sleeping
around us.” Montresor responds, “And I, Fortunato—I drink to your long life,” though he means the opposite.

The verbal irony in “The Cask of Amontillado” complements the story’s dramatic irony, building tension for the reader, who is aware of Montresor’s true intentions.

What is the opposite of irony?

The opposite of verbal irony is straightforwardness—expressing one’s intended meaning directly without any hint of a hidden meaning. “Literalness” or “directness” also express the opposite of “irony.” The word “sincerity” is another antonym for “irony,” emphasizing that the speaker lacks any sarcastic or sardonic intent.

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.