You always want to be clear and concise with your writing. But sometimes, the best way to get your point across is to say the opposite of what you actually mean. Verbal irony is a common literary device, and one that writers have been using for centuries to lend additional depth to character dialogue. And once you learn what it is and how to properly identify it, you’ll start to spot it all over the place—and become more adept at using it yourself.

With that in mind, here’s a quick explainer on verbal irony, including examples in literature and film and how to tell the difference between its use and sarcasm. 

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What Is Verbal Irony?

Verbal irony is when you say one thing but mean another. The goal isn’t to be deceptive but rather to heighten the comedy or drama in a situation. In this way, it serves as a stylistic tool for deepening meaning and bringing more dimension to both characters and scenes. And like other forms of irony, it can be a lot more effective at getting a certain point across than simply stating the facts as they stand.

Most of us use this device quite often in everyday speech—for example, saying “I guess I’m just a natural cook” after burning an easy dinner on the stove. Notably, it is not a direct lie. Instead, the speaker (or, in the case of written works, the author) uses context clues to let their audience in on the joke. Miscommunication is a key part of its use, but with the goal of highlighting—not subverting—what is actually going on.

Verbal Irony Definition

In its simplest definition, verbal irony is when what is said is in direct contradiction to the truth.

There are two basic types:

  • Comic irony: The use specifically for comedic effect, such as through obvious overstatement, understatement, or hyperbole.
  • Socratic irony: Feigning ignorance in a conversation in order to illuminate the flaws in what someone else is saying.  

Remember: it is not the same as intentional deception. What makes it powerful is that the audience understands the disconnect between what is said and what is meant, even if the character themselves does not.

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Verbal Irony Examples

Once you start looking for examples, you’ll start to see it everywhere. Here are some popular instances that you may already be familiar with.

  • In Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography, the titular character offers up an example in a statement about the weather when he says, “Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate.”
  • William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar includes an iconic line from Marc Antony, who ironically refers to Caesar’s killer Brutus as “an honorable man.”
  • In Belle’s rejection of Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, she tells him that she “just does not deserve him,” though the audience knows that it is actually the other way around.
  • In Mean Girls, Regina George tells another student that she “loves her skirt,” and later, tells Cady that she “loves her bracelet.” Cady’s understanding of Regina’s verbal irony in the first instance leads her to realize that Regina is being ironic about liking her bracelet as well.  
  • Lord Goring in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is a notorious romantic, yet when describing himself he says, “Oh! I am not at all romantic. I am not old enough. I leave romance to my seniors.” 

Verbal Irony vs. Sarcasm

Is sarcasm verbal irony? It depends who you ask, though many would agree that it is.  

The main distinction between the two devices is intent—with sarcasm spoken with a deliberately negative connotation. So while sarcasm can be considered an example of verbal irony, not all verbal irony can be considered sarcastic.

When trying to tell the difference between the two, ask yourself if the statement is merely misleading or if it is misleading in addition to being spoken with negative intent. In both instances, the result can be comedic (and indeed, sarcasm is a common device for conveying comic irony), but the context around the statement will help you differentiate between the two.

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Written by:

Laura Mueller