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Guide to Verbal Irony: 3 Classic Examples of Verbal Irony

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 22, 2020 • 3 min read

Verbal irony is one of six types of irony that can imbue a film or literary work with humor and shine a light on the contradictions of human existence.



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6 Types of Irony in Literature and Film

Irony is a literary device that appears in six different forms in narrative works of art.

  1. Classical irony: This term describes irony as it was used in ancient Greek comedy—to highlight situations in which one thing appears to be the case when, in fact, the opposite is true.
  2. Cosmic irony: Cosmic irony highlights incongruities between the absolute, theoretical world and the mundane, grounded reality of everyday life.
  3. Romantic irony: This type of irony refers to the incongruity between an artist's work and the artist's attitude toward that work.
  4. Dramatic irony: In storytelling, dramatic irony involves incongruity between what a character knows and what an audience knows. For instance, in the Greek tragedy of Oedipus, the audience knows that the lovers Jocasta and Oedipus are mother and son, but the characters do not realize their romance is incestuous.
  5. Situational irony: This type of irony involves incongruity between intent and outcomes. O. Henry's famous short story “The Gift of the Magi” exemplifies situational irony as two impoverished lovers inadvertently foil each other’s attempt at giving a heartfelt gift.
  6. Verbal irony: Verbal irony involves incongruity between a speaker's intended meaning and the literal meaning of their words.

What Is Verbal Irony?

The definition of verbal irony is a statement in which the speaker’s words are incongruous with the speaker's intent. The speaker says one thing, but they really mean another, resulting in an ironic clash between their intended meaning and their literal words. Most types of verbal irony can be classified as either overstatement or understatement.

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Verbal Irony vs. Sarcasm: What’s the Difference?

It’s easy to conflate verbal irony with sarcasm, but the two are not quite equal. Sarcasm is a more abrasive type of intentional insincerity. For instance, if someone is openly bitter but proclaims, "I'm so happy for you," their words come from a place of clear, sarcastic intent. Verbal irony can be sarcastic, but it’s generally more benign. When a musician playing an ambitious piece of music calls it a “tune,” they probably aren't trying to be snide; rather, they are using the technically incorrect term to speak of the composition in a casual or humorous way, highlighting its complexity through irony.

Verbal Irony vs. Socratic Irony: What’s the Difference?

Socratic irony refers to an interrogation technique used by the ancient Greek teacher and philosopher Socrates. As documented by Plato, Socrates would feign ignorance of a subject and ask seemingly innocent—but actually leading—questions to draw out information he already knew. Socratic irony differs from verbal irony because it involves intentional deception. Verbal irony, on the other hand, does not connote insincerity or deception.


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3 Examples of Verbal Irony in Literature

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We can observe the rich use of verbal irony in film, theatre, and other dramatic arts. Each of these films contains myriad verbal irony examples:

  1. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599): In one famous scene of this Shakespeare play, Mark Antony notes that "Brutus is an honorable man" despite well knowing that the story's main character Brutus could be tied directly to Caesar's assassination. His words do not reflect his true feelings.
  2. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729): Swift’s entire essay is built around verbal irony, satirically presenting cannibalism as a reasonable method of making the children of poor families “beneficial to the publick.” Of course, his real intent is to critique the kinds of social engineering that dehumanize the poor and working class.
  3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): When Mr. Darcey first sees Elizabeth Bennet, he says, “She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.” This is ironic because the opposite ends up being true.

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