Verbal Irony in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 1:06 Types
  • 2:13 Verbal Irony in Literature
  • 3:17 Examples
  • 4:51 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

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.

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.

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