This comes down to the difference between literal and actual meaning. In some cases, verbal irony is used to create humor, pass judgment on something, and grab someone’s attention. It is never used accidentally due to the fact that it only occurs when the speaker is aware they’re using it. If the speaker isn’t trying to be ironic, then they aren’t being. The technique is often used in dialogue in poems, plays, novels, in the script of films and television shows, and short stories. A famous example is A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift.
Explore Verbal Irony
Verbal Irony Definition
Verbal irony is used when a speaker says something that has a different literal meaning from its actual meaning. They intended the words to mean one thing, but they sound different. It is only used intentionally, meaning that someone can’t accidentally be ironic.
Often, verbal irony is contrasted against how the speaker is acting or what their emotions convey. Sometimes, writers will employ examples of dramatic irony, similes, including ironic similies, and examples of double entendres.
Types of Verbal Irony
There are a few different types of verbal irony. They include:
- Sarcasm: a type of verbal irony that expresses contempt, mocks, or ridicules. It uses an ironic remark that’s based on humor. It’s meant to draw attention to a situation and then make light of it in some way, usually satirizing it. When used, it can make the reader laugh, improve the characterization in a narrative, and more. Wit is a primary feature of good sarcasm.
- Exaggeration: also known as an overstatement, it is a statement that pushes the limits of a situation, feeling, idea, or experience. It is used to make something appear worse or better than it actually is in reality. Hyperbole is a type of exaggeration. It is also the most obvious example of the device.
- Understatement: occurs when the writer presents an idea, situation, person, or thing as less serious than it is. Examples of this technique make everything seem less interesting and important than they are in reality. It can create humor and transform the atmosphere of a scene.
Stable vs. Unstable Irony
These two types of irony are important to draw distinctions between.
- Stable irony occurs when the secondary meaning of an ironic statement, that is, the “actual” meaning, is clear. Those listening to the words or hearing the speaker will easily interpret what they mean.
- Unstable irony is less obvious. The actual meaning is unclear and can result in confusion. It is usually considered to be less effective than its counterpart.
Examples of Verbal Irony
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is filled with wonderful ironic and witty statements. The first line of the novel, which is certainly one of the most popular opening lines in literature, presents readers with their first glimpse of the style of writing they can expect from Austen. It reads:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
This line puts forward a universal statement that claims all men of a certain fortune and status in life want to get married. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes more obvious that not all men, or women, are the same. People are more complicated than any single statement can define.
Read Jane Austen’s poetry.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
The following passage can be found in Shakespeare’s history play, Julius Caesar. It is one of the most famous excerpts from the play. It is also a good example of verbal irony, specifically sarcasm. Shakespeare depicts Mark Antony speaking at Caesar’s funeral. He uses the following lines:
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
He calls Brutus, the murderer of Caesar, “noble.” That is the literal meaning. But, when a reader thinks more about the situation and who the speaker is, it’s clear that his “actual” meaning is the exact opposite. His use of words like “honorable” and “noble” in this speech helps the reader come to the conclusion that Brutus actually exhibits the opposite traits in his eyes.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In Romeo and Juliet, readers can find several good examples of verbal irony, as well as numerous other literary devices. Consider this line from Act III Scene 5. Juliet is speaking to her mother, Lady Capulet, about her future.
He shall not make me there a joyful bride.
I wonder at this haste, that I must wed
Ere he, that should be husband, comes to woo.
I pray you, tell my lord and father, madam,
I will not marry yet. And when I do, I swear
It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate,
Rather than Paris.
Here, Juliet is trying to speak to her mother about her feelings for Paris and Romeo. She uses verbal irony to confuse the situation and suggest she hates Romeo.
Why Do Writers Use Verbal Irony?
Writers use verbal irony when they want to point out contradictions and absurdities, make the reader laugh, make fun of a situation or a person, and reveal hypocrisies that others ignore. The effects of irony vary depending on the situation and how the writer or speaker uses it. Unstable and stable irony are also important to consider. Will all readers understand the reference or the “actual” meaning of a phrase? Or will the literal meaning just confuse things? Often, when used well, verbal irony is the best way a speaker can point out the different ideas, perspectives, and types of people in a story.
The three types of irony are dramatic, situational, verbal.
In a sentence, verbal irony means that someone is attempting to pass judgment on a situation, person, idea, or draw a comparison between the same. It is used to create humor and point out hypocrisies as well.
An example of verbal irony is if someone comes home to a messy house and says, “Wow, it’s clean in here.” The literal and actual meanings are different.
Related Literary Terms
- Situational Irony: occurs when something happens that’s different from what’s expected.
- Irony: occurs when an outcome is different from expected. It is very possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
- Satire/Satirical Comedy: are used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Lampoon: a type of satire in which a person or thing is attacked unjustly. They can be found in prose and verse.
- Watch: What is Verbal Irony?
- Watch: Learning Irony Types Using Movie Clips
- Listen: Irony vs Sarcasm – What’s the difference?