Verbal irony is a figure of speech in which a speaker says one thing but means another. It comes in several forms and is used to bring humor to a situation, foreshadow events to come or introduce a sense of foreboding. Take a look at these examples of verbal irony and see how many you could introduce into your daily dialogue.
Verbal irony is used in a variety of circumstances. We may stumble upon it in general conversation, the media and in literature. Verbal irony often brings levity to a situation, exposes double entendres or pokes fun at a situation.
Many people believe verbal irony to be synonymous with sarcasm, but sarcasm is only one of the common types of verbal irony. It appears in four basic forms:
- sarcasm (saying “Oh, fantastic!” when the situation is actually very bad)
- Socratic irony (pretending to be ignorant to show that someone else is ignorant: "I'm confused, I thought your curfew was at 11. Isn't it past 12 now?")
- understatement (saying "We don't get along" after having a huge fight with someone)
- overstatement (saying "I'll die if I can't go to the concert!")
Like the other major types of irony, verbal irony plays with the listener's expectations. You'll find examples of verbal irony everywhere, from children's movies to classic literature to everyday situations.
Whenever a character says something that makes you smirk or chuckle, they're probably using verbal irony. It's the difference between what they're saying and what they mean that brings humor to a situation — even to a dark situation.
- In Beauty and the Beast, Belle tells Gaston, "I just don't deserve you!" when, in reality, Gaston doesn't deserve Belle.
- In Shrek, Donkey asks Shrek if he can stay with him. Shrek replies, "Of course," when he really means, "No, not really."
- Stanley Kubrick threw in a little verbal irony in Dr. Strangelove when this line made it into the script: "Gentlemen! You can't fight in here! This is the war room!"
- In Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Darcy says his future beloved wife is, "tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me." (Little did he know, right?)
- In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry says, "Yeah, Quirrell was a great teacher. There was just that minor drawback of him having Lord Voldemort sticking out of the back of his head!”
- In Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography, Snicket offers up a great use of verbal irony, "Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate."
You don't have to be a world-class playwright or author to engage in a little bit of verbal irony. Let's take a look at a few more examples of verbal irony that could play out in everyday life.
- Someone shopping for a mattress lays down on a really firm one and says, "It's so soft, I may float away."
- When the air conditioning goes out on a hot summer afternoon, a tenant says to their landlord, "I'm really enjoying the cool climate in my apartment!"
- After a terrible blind date, a woman calls her friend and says, "My favorite part was when he insulted the waiter and asked me to pay for both meals."
- A sister walks into her brother's messy apartment and says, "I see you're still the king of clean!"
- A mother tells her son she enjoyed watching that horror movie "about as much as a root canal."
- A food critic tells the chef, "Your steak was as tender as a leather boot."
- A woman spills her morning coffee on her white silk blouse and says, "This day couldn't be off to a better start."
- A team of co-workers is about to begin a major project when someone asks if they can have a five-minute break. The team leader responds with, "Sure! It's not like we have anything better to do."
- A woman chips her nail and cries out, "Oh no! My life is ruined!"
- The candidate that nobody likes loses his election for mayor. A couple of citizens are overheard saying, "Gee. I was really hoping he'd win."
- A boyfriend plans to propose to his girlfriend on the night she cancels on him to stay home and binge-watch Grey's Anatomy. He replies, "Sure. It's not like I had anything special planned."
Verbal irony can serve to provide levity to a new situation, poke a little bit of fun, or even subtly foreshadow a very ironic future, such as Mr. Darcy’s case. This type of dialogue is another feather in your writing cap, so spread your wings and fly to newly formed ironic heights. While you’re there, check out some examples of situational irony. You can then contrast both concepts to these examples of dramatic irony. Why not explore a little more and see which form you’d like to include in your next short story or poem?