Verbal Irony: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why We Even Care
Wouldn’t it be easier if we all just said what we meant?
Yeah, probably. But reading would be a lot less fun. And, in a weird way, you sometimes shed more light on an issue by saying what’s not true about it.
Welcome to the paradox of verbal irony, where your literal meaning can pack a bigger punch when it’s cloaked in a deliberately obvious falsehood.
Verbal irony is a great tool for adding humor, calling out hypocrisy, foreshadowing future events, and revealing deeper themes. It can also be super confusing, especially because there are so many different types.
So you and I are going to break this down, type by type, example by example, purpose by purpose. You’ll learn:
- A nice and tidy verbal irony definition
- The different forms this literary device takes
- How to use verbal irony in your own writing
- How this tool affects your reader's experience
Most importantly, you can expect a ton of verbal irony examples to make all these concepts much clearer.
So here we go. From sarcasm to understatement, dialogue to narration, here’s everything you need to know about verbal irony.
Understanding Verbal Irony
Verbal Irony Definition
Verbal irony occurs when the says something different from what they mean.
So then… what’s the difference between verbal irony and a lie?
Intent! The goal of a lie is to obscure the truth. But when it’s irony, the speaker (or writer) intends for the listener (or reader) to understand their literal meaning… or at least understand that they’re not saying exactly what they mean.
For example, let’s say a flock of geese suddenly flies in through your window and roosts in your bookshelves. You say, “You know what this room really needs? A goose.”
That’s verbal irony. You’re making that statement assuming that the listener knows you actually mean the opposite.
So Verbal Irony is Sarcasm?
Astute question! Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony, but not all verbal irony is sarcasm. We’ll discuss this further in a bit.
What’s the Point of Using Verbal Irony?
If someone intends to be understood, why not just say exactly what they mean from the beginning?
Because writers love playing games with language and saying things directly is boring.
Also, verbal irony can inject a statement with humor, introduce a new perspective, and highlight fun things like tension, hypocrisy, and absurdity.
Don’t worry if you’re having trouble imagining how. You’ll get loads of verbal irony examples to clarify these concepts.
Verbal Irony Examples
From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Austen isn’t actually talking about wealthy men frantically looking for wives. Instead, she’s making sly commentary on the frenzy that ensues when single women (and their parents) discover a flush bachelor in their vicinity.
From William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
“...Brutus is an honorable man.”
Mark Antony uses the word “honorable” a lot in this speech, disingenuously “defending” Brutus’s murder of Ceasar. He basically says, “Brutus must have had a solid reason for committing murder, being such an honorable man and all.”
The irony is thick here.
From Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado:
“I shall not die of a cough.”
“True—true,” I replied.
This is some super sneaky verbal irony. The speaker’s true meaning isn’t, “You won’t die of a cough.” It’s, “You won’t die of a cough; you’ll die when I seal you into a living tomb.”
Types of Verbal Irony
As you may have figured out from the verbal irony examples above, there are several different ways to use this literary device. These are the most common forms of verbal irony:
When you use stable irony, your true meaning is crystal clear to your audience.
Take the big New Year’s Eve scene in When Harry Met Sally for example. After Harry declares his feelings in one of the greatest rom-com monologues ever written, Sally responds, “I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.”
It’s obvious to both the audience and Harry that what she actually means is, “I love you, too.” If her tone and the wider context of the movie don’t make it clear enough, the kiss sure does.
Unstable irony is when the speaker’s meaning is a bit fuzzier.
This can make for a fun foreshadowing tool. Let’s say your protagonist is a new-in-town detective who decides to question a local. The police chief says, “You do that. I’m sure it’ll be an informative conversation.”
Does the chief mean this person won’t be informative? That they’ll give too much information? Weird information?
Neither the detective nor the audience knows. But it sounds like everybody’s in for an interesting time.
Sarcasm is what happens when verbal irony gets a little stabby. The speaker says the exact opposite of what they mean in a way that deliberately mocks a person or situation.
“Sandals with socks? Nice fashion statement.”
Also known as hyperbole, an overstatement is when you exaggerate to make a point. Like, “Everybody and their mom is talking about your debut novel!”
An understatement is the opposite of an overstatement: minimizing to make a point.
For example, if you returned from a trip to the Grand Canyon and told everyone you’d recently gone to Arizona to take a look at a ditch, you’d be making an understatement.
This is a fun one. Socratic irony is when the speaker feigns ignorance to draw something out of another person, call out inconsistency, or expose a flaw in their logic.
This type of verbal irony comes up a lot in political satire, but you’ll also encounter loads of it in Legally Blonde. No one weaponizes the dumb blonde stereotype like Elle Woods. Consider the scene when a saleswoman tries to sell her clearance dress at full price, claiming it just arrived the day before:
ELLE: Oh! Is this low-viscosity rayon?
SALESWOMAN: Yes, of course.
ELLE: With a half-loop stitching on the hem?
SALESWOMAN: Absolutely. It’s one of a kind.
ELLE: It’s impossible to use a half-loop stitching on low-viscosity rayon. It would snag the fabric. And you didn’t just get it in. I saw it in the June Vogue a year ago.
That’s Socratic irony. She’s not asking sincere questions; she’s leading the saleswoman to reveal herself as a liar.
Clear as mud. Fun as a root canal. Prickly as a peach.
In an ironic simile, the speaker drives home the true nature of someone or something by ironically comparing it to something with opposite qualities.
Integrating Verbal Irony Into Your Creative Writing
So how do you incorporate all these fun types of verbal irony into your own writing? Here are a few quick tips:
Make sure the irony fits your narrative voice and tone.
If you want to include verbal irony in your narration, consider which types best fit the voice and tone you’ve already established. For example, sarcasm tends to come off as biting or cynical. If that’s not the tone you’re going for, don’t prioritize that type of verbal irony.
Use irony that fits your characters.
Look for situations where your characters might choose not to be direct. Then ask yourself which type of verbal irony would come most naturally to them.
Notice if you’re always defaulting to sarcasm.
When you start playing around with verbal irony, sarcasm is an easy go-to. All you have to do is say the opposite of what you mean and be snarky about it.
But that’s exactly the problem. Sarcasm gets old because it’s not exactly clever. It also has a mocking tone, so frequent use of it will reflect a similar attitude in your narrator or characters.
Have a reason for being ironic.
Like all literary devices, verbal irony should be used for a specific purpose. If you’re at a loss for purposes, this next section should help.
Impact of Verbal Irony on Readers
Why even bother with any of this? How does the use of verbal irony improve your readers’ experience of the story? I’m so glad you asked.
Verbal irony highlights tension
Where there’s verbal irony, there’s likely (but not definitely) tension.
A character isn’t saying what they mean. Or they’re using irony to shine the light of reality on someone else’s facade. Or they’re luring another character into a trap.
All these things create juicer conflict.
It helps establish character
What type of person would say, “I’m not indifferent to you,” when they mean “I love you madly”?
What about the character who’d rather be hilariously ironic than communicate directly about what’s bothering them?
Verbal irony gives you more options for clarifying your characters’ personalities and voices without spelling it all out.
Irony can add layers to your story
As we’ve discussed, verbal irony can foreshadow discoveries to come or hint at character secrets. It can also indicate hidden tensions and even establish a symbol or motif.
It’s a way to make your reader feel like an insider
When you use verbal irony in your narration knowing that your audience will recognize your true meaning, you’re essentially winking at them. They’re insiders here. They know what’s really going on and they know how to interpret your tone.
Irony is a great tool for satire
Satire is a form of comedy designed to mock human flaws, failures, and vices. Some of the best-known examples include political cartoons, comedy news shows, and satirical publications like The Onion.
Verbal irony gets a real workout when it comes to satire. Take this ironic headline from The Onion, for example:
“Company Wellness Seminar Teaches Mindful Acceptance of Pay Cuts”
The intent of the headline is not to report on actual reality but to point out the absurdity of corporations making a big loud deal about mental health initiatives when their staff is overworked and underpaid.
Verbal irony can add humor
Finally, verbal irony can be pretty funny. This literary technique can add playfulness and biting wit, both in narration and in dialogue.
Crafting Subtle Verbal Irony
So how do you do all this well? How do you make sure your audience recognizes your use of irony without simultaneously hitting them over the head with it?
It’s all about creating a context that makes your true meaning clear.
Have you established a strong, recognizable tone that makes it easy to tell when your narrator is being ironic? Does the reader know enough about the situation or characters to realize what the speaker really means?
As we’ve discussed, it’s okay to throw in some unstable irony and leave your audience guessing about the intended message. But make sure you follow through with an explanation later on.
How’s That for Clear as Mud?
Just kidding. I’m hoping you’re leaving this article with a stronger understanding of what verbal irony is and how you can use it to strengthen your writing.
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