What Is Verbal Irony? | Definition, Types & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  May 30, 2024 5 min read
Verbal irony is a figure of speech in which the literal meaning of what someone says is different to the actual meaning.

Verbal irony is intentional and can be used to create humor or to make a point. Because verbal irony allows us to communicate ideas or emotions indirectly, it adds depth and nuance to our communication.

Example of verbal irony
Suppose you and your friend are on your way to a restaurant on a Saturday evening, but you get stuck in traffic. Your friend turns to you and says: “This is so much fun. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday evening!”

Verbal irony is common in literature and in everyday conversations, but it should be avoided in academic writing or professional communication.


What is verbal irony?

Verbal irony is a type of irony that occurs when the literal meaning of what someone says is different to the underlying meaning. In literature, verbal irony is a common trope, and it can be found in plays, novels, and poetry. Writers use verbal irony to convey subtle messages or to create humor.

For verbal irony to work, the audience needs to interpret the underlying meaning based on context. For example, if there is a blizzard outside and someone comments “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”, others can easily infer that this is verbal irony. What this person actually means is the opposite of what they have said.

Types of verbal irony

Some common types of verbal irony include:

Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony in which someone says the opposite of what they mean. The goal is usually to ridicule someone or something, to express irritation, or to be funny.

Example of verbal irony: Sarcasm
Suppose you and your friend are on your way to a restaurant on a Saturday evening, but you get stuck in traffic. Your friend turns to you and says: “This is so much fun. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday evening!”

Overstatement

Overstatement occurs when the speaker exaggerates the importance of something, usually for comedic effect or to emphasize a point.

Example of verbal irony: Overstatement
Suppose you’re outside on a really hot day, and someone says: “It’s like an oven out here!”

Understatement

Understatement is the opposite of overstatement, and it involves downplaying the importance of something. The irony lies in the discrepancy between what one would be expected to say and what they actually say.

Example of verbal irony: Understatement
After experiencing a turbulent flight and a bumpy landing, you finally disembark and say: “Well, that was interesting!”

Ironic similes

Ironic similes are a form of verbal irony in which we use a simile (i.e., a comparison between two unlike things). Because the comparison is unexpected or contrary to the typical associations between the two things being compared, ironic similes can make a description more vivid and humorous.

Example of verbal irony: Ironic similes
Someone asks you how you are getting along with your new colleague and you say: “My new colleague is as friendly as a viper.”

This is an ironic simile because it contrasts the quality of friendliness with the dangerous nature of a viper.

Verbal irony examples

Verbal irony often occurs in both literature and everyday life.

Verbal irony in literature

Verbal irony appears frequently in literature, especially in dialogue, to make the plot more engaging.

For example, Oscar Wilde uses verbal irony in his play An Ideal Husband.

Example of verbal irony in An Ideal Husband
“Oh! I am not at all romantic. I am not old enough. I leave romance to my seniors.”

This is an example of verbal irony because the character who professes this, Lord Goring, is, in fact, a very romantic character: he is always flirting and getting involved in complex love affairs. This statement is used to downplay his own romantic nature and perhaps to amuse.

It can also be seen in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Juliet tells her mother, Lady Capulet, that she will not marry Paris, the suitor her parents have chosen.

Example of verbal irony in Romeo and Juliet
I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear / It shall be Romeo—whom you know I hate— / Rather than Paris.

This is an example of verbal irony because Juliet claims the opposite of what the audience expects to hear: that she hates Romeo. However, Juliet not only loves Romeo, but, as the audience knows, she is already married to him at this point.

Verbal irony in everyday life

In everyday life, we often use verbal irony without realizing it.

Example of verbal irony in everyday life
You’ve spent hours trying to assemble a table from a company known for its challenging assembly instructions. After finally completing the task, you say: “Well, that was a piece of cake.”

This is an example of verbal irony because the reality is the opposite of what you say: assembling that piece of furniture was anything but easy.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, rhetorical devices, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

Commonly confused words

Rhetoric

Hers or her’s

Aid vs aide

Malapropism

Truely or truly

Advice vs advise

Pun

Beck and call or beckon call

Council vs counsel

Extended metaphor

Jist or gist

Former vs latter

Simile

Despite of

Breathe vs breath

Dramatic irony


Frequently asked questions about verbal irony

What is the difference between verbal irony and Socratic irony?

Verbal irony and Socratic irony are both types of irony used in speech. However, they have different goals.

  • Verbal irony is a figure of speech in which we intentionally say something different to what we mean. This is usually done to create humor or make a point.
  • Socratic irony is a rhetorical technique in which the speaker feigns ignorance on a topic to encourage the other side to explain their ideas. This form of irony is a teaching technique used to stimulate critical thinking and challenge or expose contradictions in someone's arguments.

In short, verbal irony is used primarily for humor or oblique criticism, whereas Socratic irony is a didactic tool.

What is the opposite of irony?

The opposite of irony is sincerity. In general, irony involves a discrepancy between the apparent and the underlying meaning of a situation or phrase. In other words, it involves saying one thing but meaning the opposite.

Sincerity, on the other hand, involves genuine and transparent communication. When we are being sincere, there is no hidden meaning and we say exactly what we mean.

For example, the phrase “What a beautiful day” is ironic if it's cold and rainy, but it is sincere if it is sunny and warm.

What are some examples of verbal irony in “The Cask of Amontillado”?

In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Poe uses verbal irony throughout the text to build suspense and add a touch of dark humor, as seen in the examples below.

  • The main character, Montresor, makes a toast to Fortunato’s good health, saying, “I drink to your long life.” However, the reader knows that he intends to kill him.
  • When Fortunato has a coughing fit because of the dampness in the catacombs, Montresor pretends he is concerned, stating, “We will go back. Your health is precious.” In reality, Montresor brought Fortunato to the catacombs to murder him, so this phrase is highly ironic.
  • When Fortunato asks Montresor if he is a mason, he means a Freemason. Montresor’s answer is “yes.” However, Montresor means that he is a craftsman, since he will be entombing Fortunato in stone.


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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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