Verbal Irony

Definition of Verbal Irony

Verbal irony occurs when a speaker speaks something contradictory to what he intends to say. It is an intentional product of the speaker and is contradictory to his/her emotions and actions. To define it simply, it occurs when a character uses a statement with underlying meanings that contrast with its literal meaning; it shows that the writer has used verbal irony. Writers rely on the audience’s intelligence for discerning the hidden meanings they intend to convey. Writers also use ironic similes to convey exactly the opposite of what they intend to say, such as “soft as concrete.”

Types of Verbal Irony

There are four major types of verbal ironies as follows.

  1. Sarcasm: It intends to mock or ridicule or express contempt.
  2. Stable and Unstable Irony: Stable ironic remarks are clear, while unstable is, somewhat, ambiguous.
  3. Hyperbolic statement or Exaggeration and Understatement: Overstatement is an exaggeration, while understatement is belittling of something or the quality of some person.
  4. Socratic type of Ironic Remarks: It means to pretend ignorance to retrieve more knowledge from others.

Difference between Verbal Irony and Sarcasm

As verbal irony is contrary to what is being said, it may or may not have a mocking tone. However, in sarcasm, it is intended to criticize in the case which it may backfire. The reason is that it is often used to mock or ridicule or express hatred, while verbal irony may not intend to do it. Sarcasm is considered to be crude, while verbal irony is subtle.

Stable Vs. Unstable Irony

Stable irony uses sentences and phrases that are clear to the audience, but unstable is marked with ambiguity or ambivalence. The readers and audiences do not find it easy to understand the underlying irony in case of unstable ironic remarks. Otherwise, both are common in that both are types of verbal irony, or both use words to ironize some person, quality, or thing.

Using Overstatement and Understatement in Verbal Irony

Overstatement shows exaggeration that occurs in hyperbolic statements, an understatement means to stress on the littleness of things than their actual sizes. It could occur in the case of a physical description or even in the qualities of things or situations. It could also be that overstatement is the opposite of what a thing or quality actually is.

Verbal Irony Vs. Socratic Irony Difference

Verbal irony means to use words to show contrary to what actually is said about a situation, person or fact, the Socratic irony is marked with ignorance. A person using Socratic irony pretends to be ignorant of what the situation is. This is the way of showing his dumbness to his opponent to retrieve information or knowledge. It is also called verbal chess where the player does not demonstrate his actual knowledge in order to get more knowledge or extract information.

Examples of Verbal Irony from Literature

Example #1: Romeo & Juliet By William Shakespeare

“Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘I am sure they are sour.’ ”

“I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear it shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate, rather than Paris.”

Juliet does not like the decision of her father to marry Paris, whom she dislikes, and instead adores Romeo. Hence, she makes a decision to marry Romeo and tells her mother about it ironically that whenever she would marry, it would be Romeo – whom she dislikes – and not Paris, thus confusing her mother.

Example #2: Pride & Prejudice By Jane Austen

“She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

We can find many fine examples of verbal irony in Pride and Prejudice. In this example, we relish the ironic flavor of Darcy’s statement, as we later find out that the woman he found unsuitable to dance with, ends up taking a place in his heart.

Example #3: The Unknown Citizen By W. H. Auden

The title of the poem, The Unknown Citizen, employs verbal irony, as the poet describes a person whom everyone knows, yet he is still unknown. Also, by deliberately capitalizing on common words, the speaker makes them sound meaningless, ironic, and sarcastic: “the Greater Community,” “Social Psychology,” “Union,” “Public Opinion,” and “High-Grade Living.” All of these terms sound formal, pompous, bureaucratic, and arrogant. Simply, through verbal irony, the poet shows how governmental agencies, which should serve human beings, have rather enslaved them.

Example #4: Oedipus Rex By Sophocles

“You are all ignorant. I will not reveal the troubling things inside me, which I can call your grief as well.”

“Do you intend to betray me and destroy the city?”

All types of ironies are prevalent throughout the entire play, Oedipus Rex. One fine example of verbal irony occurs when Tiresias refuses to reveal the prophecy to Oedipus.

In fact, Oedipus has misunderstood Tiresias’ statement, “… which I can call your grief as well.” By this, Tiresias means that, if he reveals the truth, it would become Oedipus’ grief that he is the murderer of his king, Laius. This is a verbal irony in which Oedipus fails to realize that this “grief” is going to be an impending fate for him.

Example #5: A Modest Proposal By Jonathan Swift

“I rather recommend buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.”

Verbal irony is a dominant literary device in this novel by Swift. For instance, in the above statement, the author intends to point out that the government should not treat Irish people like animals. In irony, he compares the Irish to animals.

Example #6: Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography By Lemony Snicket

“Today was a very cold and bitter day, as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate; if the cup of hot chocolate had vinegar added to it and were placed in a refrigerator for several hours.”

Snicket uses verbal irony by employing ironic simile. Then, he proceeds to break down this simile, by overturning its meaning. By making a complex structure, the author creates verbal irony to let readers enjoy it.

Functions of Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is very common in everyday speech, plays, novels, and poetry, and usually occurs in the form of sarcasm. It depends upon timing and suitable circumstances to achieve its effect. Verbal irony develops funny and dramatic situations. Through verbal irony, writers and poets can convey their bitter messages indirectly, in a less bitter and more effective way. It makes a literary piece more effective by provoking readers into analyzing and thinking harder about a situation. By contrasting and comparing suppositions with reality, the readers can better understand the writer’s intent.