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In this lesson, we will define verbal irony as we use it in everyday life and its use in literature, look at the different kinds of verbal irony and then study some examples in different literary genres.

Afterward, test your new knowledge with a quick quiz.

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What is Verbal Irony?

Think about a time in the past where you were given a task you dreaded. Perhaps you described this task by saying, ‘It’s about as fun as root canal.’ Or maybe you were introduced to a new person who was less than pleasant.

Later you may have described that person as, ‘friendly as a rattlesnake.’ Both of these are examples of verbal irony.Verbal irony is when what is said is the opposite of the literal meaning. A root canal is not fun. It takes time to perform and is followed by pain and discomfort. While we are saying, ‘fun,’ it is known that we mean the opposite. This is also true for the second example.

A rattlesnake is never friendly and should be avoided. Again, the opposite meaning of ‘friendly’ is what we truly intend.When looking for verbal irony, it is important to examine the context of the sentence. For instance, the phrase ‘clear as mud’ is another example of verbal irony. Looking at the context, we know that mud is not clear. It is dark, dirty and hard to see through. Knowing this, we can understand the use of verbal irony.

Types of Verbal Irony

While all verbal irony follows the same basic definition, there are a few different types.

  1. Sarcasm. In sarcasm, the speaker says the opposite of what he or she means in order to show contempt or mock.

    The speaker’s tone may vary, so it is important to try many different ‘voices’ when reading. Not all sarcasm is delivered rudely or angrily, some is more light-hearted and can even sound friendly.

  2. Overstatement or exaggeration. A really good example of this (and one that you have probably heard) is misusing the word ‘literally.’ Many people use ‘literally’ in conversation, such as, ‘I literally died.’ Well if you’re alive to say this, then no you did not.

    This kind of exaggeration is another example of verbal irony.

  3. An understatement. This is when a person minimizes something, making it seem less important than it really is. A good example of this that you’ve probably heard is ‘no big deal.’ This is usually following a description of a great feat, such as, ‘I just wrote a 10-page paper in two hours.

    No big deal.’

Verbal Irony in Literature

An author would include verbal irony in literature for several reasons. First, it can be funny. An author may have a certain character exaggerate or be sarcastic. This is entertaining and also allows characters to become more complex. As a reader, we are able to ask more about a character because of his or her use of verbal irony: why is it being used? What can we learn about this character’s attitude and viewpoints? How does this character relate to other characters?Second, it allows the author to expose discrepancies of facts.

The author is able to show more irony through verbal irony, meaning the author can do more to compare and contrast. Third, an author may use verbal irony to make fun of someone or something.Finally, verbal irony can be a good way for the author to develop a point of view. Every story that we read has a message. Verbal irony is an entertaining, even more subtle way for an author to address a point of view and help the audience feel more connected to the story and message.

Examples of Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is quite common in literature.

An author could use it briefly or even write an entire piece based on verbal irony. It can be found in many forms, including novels, short stories, plays and poems.William Shakespeare used verbal irony in many of his plays. The opening line of Romeo and Juliet is one example. He writes, ‘Two households, both alike in dignity.’ We initially believe that the households are two families worthy of our respect. However, as the play unfolds, we learn that the way in which they are alike is that they are both corrupt.

This ultimately tears them apart. Another example is in his play Julius Caesar when Mark Antony says, ‘Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honorable man.’ As a reader, we know that the truth is opposite of this statement.Many other famous poets used verbal irony, including Robert Frost. In his poem ‘The Road Not Taken,’ Frost writes that the speaker will look back on his decision and sigh. As the audience, we expect a different outcome.

In addition, many poets use exaggeration and overstatement in writings.Perhaps the most famous use of verbal irony in literature is A Modest Proposal by Jonathon Swift. In this writing, Swift wants to expose the treatment of the Irish by the English and insist on better treatment. He does so by sarcastically writing an essay calling for the Irish children to be eaten. While the essay can seem a little extreme, his message is built around his sarcasm and verbal irony.

Lesson Summary

Verbal irony is when what is said is the opposite of the literal meaning. One type of verbal irony is sarcasm, where the speaker says the opposite of what he or she means in order to show contempt or mock.

Other types of verbal irony include overstatement (or exaggeration) and understatement. Verbal irony can be used for various reasons. It can be used to be funny, to expose discrepancies of facts, to make fun of something and to create a point of view. Many famous authors, such as William Shakespeare, Robert Frost and Jonathon Swift, have used verbal irony in their works.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Describe verbal irony
  • List and give examples of the types of verbal irony
  • Discuss the purpose of verbal irony in literature

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