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Verbal Irony

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Verbal Irony

What is verbal irony? John is having one of those days where everything goes wrong. He spills coffee on his shirt on the bus. He gets to school and realizes he has forgotten his homework. Then, he is late for football practice by five minutes and is not allowed to play. He laughs and says: "Wow! What great luck I've had today!"

Of course, John is having nothing but bad luck. But, by saying he is having good luck, he expresses his frustration and amazement at how bad everything is going. This is an example of verbal irony and its effects.

Verbal Irony, Late example, StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Verbal irony is saying "What great luck!" when everything is going wrong.

Verbal Irony: Definition

To start, what is verbal irony?

Verbal irony: a rhetorical device that occurs when a speaker says one thing but means another.

Verbal Irony: Examples

There are many famous examples of verbal irony in literature.

For example, there is verbal irony in Jonathan Swift's satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal" (1729).

In this essay, Swift argues that people should eat poor children to solve the problem of poverty in Ireland. This striking yet fake argument draws attention to the problem of poverty. He writes:

I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.

Swift is using verbal irony here because he is claiming that he does not care about the issue of poverty when, in fact, he does. If he didn't care about the issue, he would not be writing an essay that draws attention to it. His use of verbal irony allows him to highlight how problematic it is that people do not care about the topic.

There is verbal irony in William Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar (1599).

In Act III, Scene II, Marc Anthony gives a speech after Brutus kills Caesar. He uses verbal irony by complimenting Brutus and calling him "noble" and "honorable" while also praising Caesar. In doing so, he is actually criticizing Brutus for killing Caesar:

The noble Brutus

Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Casar answer'd it.

Throughout this speech, Marc Anthony shows that Caesar was a good person who was not as ambitious and dangerous as Brutus claimed. This makes his praise of Brutus ironic and suggests that Brutus was actually the one in the wrong.

Effects of Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is a useful device because it provides insight into who a speaker is.

Imagine someone is reading a book, and a character makes use of verbal irony whenever they are in a bad situation. This tells the reader that this character is the type of person who tries to make light of bad times.

Verbal irony also expresses strong emotion.

Recall the example from the beginning of the article where everything is going wrong for John. By saying he is having good luck when he is really having bad luck, he is emphasizing his feelings of frustration.

Verbal irony also frequently makes people laugh.

Imagine you are on a picnic with a friend, and there is a sudden downpour. Your friend laughs and says, "Wonderful day for a picnic, huh?" Here, your friend is trying to make you laugh and make the best of a bad situation.

Verbal Irony, Picnic Table in the Rain, StudySmarterFig. 2 - "Wonderful day for a picnic, huh?"

Since verbal irony is good at providing insight into characters, authors use the device to help develop their characters' points of view.

William Shakespeare's use of verbal irony in Marc Anthony's speech in Julius Caesar helps the audience understand Marc Anthony's perspective on the events of the play.

Authors also use verbal irony to emphasize important ideas.

In "A Modest Proposal," Jonathan Swift emphasizes the importance of addressing poverty by using verbal irony.

Difference Between Verbal Irony and Sarcasm

Verbal irony might seem sarcastic, but verbal irony and sarcasm are actually different. Although people might use verbal irony to say one thing but convey another, the device isn't used to mock someone or be negative. When people say something with the intention of meaning the opposite to mock others or themselves, that is when they are using sarcasm.

Sarcasm: a type of verbal irony in which a speaker mocks a situation.

There is sarcasm in J. D. Salinger's book, The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

The main character Holden Caufield uses sarcasm when he is leaving his boarding school. As he leaves, he yells, "Sleep tight, ya morons!" (Chapter 8). Holden does not really want the others students to sleep well. Instead, he is telling them to sleep tight in order to convey feelings of frustration and to mock the other students. Since he is using irony to ridicule others, this is an example of sarcasm.

There is sarcasm in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice (1600).

The character Portia has a suitor named Monsieur le Bon. She does not like him, and, when she is discussing him, she says, "God made him and therefore let him pass for a man" (Act I, Scene II). By saying, "let him pass for a man," Portia is suggesting that Monsieur le Bon is not actually a man. Here, she is deliberately saying one thing to mean something negative and insulting. Since she is using irony to mock others, this is an example of sarcasm.

Difference Between Verbal Irony and Socratic Irony

It is also important to distinguish verbal irony from Socratic irony.

Socratic irony: a type of irony in which a person pretends to be ignorant and asks a question that deliberately exposes a weakness in others' points.

The term Socratic irony comes from the Greek philosopher Socrates, who developed a method of argumentation. His Socratic method involves asking people questions to help them better understand and discover weaknesses in their own points of view. Socratic irony occurs when a person pretends not to understand another's argument and deliberately asks a question to reveal a weakness in it.

There is Socratic irony in the Greek philosopher Plato's book, The Republic (375 BC).

In The Republic, Socrates uses Socratic irony when speaking to orators called Sophists. In Book I, Section III, he speaks to Thrasymachus and pretends to be ignorant about the topic of justice. He says:

And why, when we are seeking for justice, a thing more precious than many pieces of gold, do you say that we are weakly yielding to one another and not doing our utmost to get at the truth? Nay, my good friend, we are most willing and anxious to do so, but the fact is that we cannot. And if so, you people who know all things should pity us and not be angry with us.

Here Socrates feigns ignorance about justice so that Thrasymachus will speak on the topic. Socrates actually knows quite a lot about justice and truth, but he pretends not to because he wants to expose the weaknesses in Thrasymachus's argument. He is deliberately asking a question to reveal another's lack of knowledge. This is not verbal irony because he is not saying something to mean the opposite; instead, he is pretending to not know something in order to reveal something.

Verbal Irony, Socratic irony, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Death of Socrates, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1787.

Difference Between Verbal Irony and Overstatement

It is also easy to confuse overstatement with verbal irony.

Overstatement: Otherwise known as hyperbole, overstatement is a figure of speech in which the speaker deliberately exaggerates to create emphasis.

An Olympic athlete might say: "I would die from happiness if I won first place."

Of course, the athlete would not actually die from happiness if they won first place, but the athlete emphasizes the importance of winning to them by saying this. Overstatement is different than verbal irony because the speaker is saying more than is necessary, not saying one thing to mean another.

Verbal Irony - Key takeaways

  • Verbal irony occurs when a speaker says one thing but means another.
  • Authors use verbal irony to develop characters, emphasize important ideas, and create humor.
  • Overstatement is not the same as verbal irony. Overstatement occurs when a speaker uses exaggeration to make a strong point. Verbal irony occurs when a speaker says one thing but means another.
  • Socratic irony is different from verbal irony. Socratic irony occurs when a person pretends to be ignorant and deliberately asks a question that reveals a weakness in another's argument.
  • Sarcasm is different from verbal irony. Sarcasm occurs when a person mocks themselves or someone else by saying one thing when they mean something else.

Frequently Asked Questions about Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is a rhetorical device that occurs when a speaker says one thing but means another.

Authors use verbal irony to develop characters, emphasize important ideas, and create humor.

The purpose of using irony is to emphasize key ideas, provide insight into characters, and to entertain. 

Verbal irony is intentional. The speaker intentionally says something but means another to emphasize an important point or feeling. 

Overstatement is not the same as verbal irony. Overstatement occurs when a speaker uses exaggeration to make a strong point. Verbal irony occurs when a speaker says one thing to mean another.   

Final Verbal Irony Quiz

Question

What is verbal irony?

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Answer

Verbal irony occurs when a speaker says one thing but means another.

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Question

What device is evident here? I would faint if I met the president! 

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Answer

overstatement

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Question

True or False. Overstatement is the same as verbal irony. 

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Answer

False. Overstatement occurs when a speaker exaggerates to make a strong point. Verbal irony is when a speaker says one thing but means another. 

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Question

True or False. Verbal Irony and Sarcasm are the same thing.

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Answer

False. Sarcasm is deliberately directed at a person to mock them, and verbal irony is not. 

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Question

Which of the following is an effect of verbal irony?

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Answer

All of the above. 

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Question

True or False. Verbal irony is a rhetorical device.

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Answer

True. 

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Question

What is Socratic irony?

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Answer

Socratic irony is a type of irony in which a person pretends to be ignorant and asks a question that deliberately exposes a weakness in others’ points. 

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Question

Where does the term "Socratic irony" come from?

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Answer

The Greek philosopher Socrates. 

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Question

Which of the following is an example of verbal irony?

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Answer

I love when everything goes wrong!

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Question

True or False. Verbal irony is unintentional.

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Answer

False. Verbal irony is intentional. Speakers use the device deliberately to emphasize an idea or a feeling. 

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Question

Which of the following is an example of verbal irony?

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Answer

"Oh, it's 100 degrees in November. Climate change is the best."

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Question

Which of the following is an example of verbal irony?

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Answer

"Summer is my favorite season. I love the feeling of melting into a puddle of sweat every day before I even get to work."

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Question

You're from Brooklyn? Oh, you must see the Golden Gate Bridge every day, right?


What device is evident here?

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Answer

Socratic Irony

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Question

If I have to listen to that announcer's voice for another minute, I will literally go insane.


What device is evident here?

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Answer

Overstatement

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Question

You just now figured that out? Wow, you must be some kind of genius.


What device is evident here?

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Answer

Sarcasm

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Question

A terrible day? No, I wish every day was like this.


What device is evident here?

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Answer

Verbal Irony

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Question

What is the difference between sarcasm and verbal irony?

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Answer

Although people might use verbal irony to say one thing but convey another, the device isn't used to mock someone or be negative. When people say something with the intention of meaning the opposite to mock others or themselves, that is when they are using sarcasm. 

Show question

Question

What is the difference between verbal irony and socratic irony?

Show answer

Answer

Verbal irony occurs when someone says one thing but means another. Socratic irony occurs when a person pretends not to understand another's argument and deliberately asks a question to reveal a weakness in it.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between verbal irony and overstatement?

Show answer

Answer

Verbal irony occurs when someone says one thing but means another. Overstatement occurs when a speaker deliberately exaggerates to create emphasis.

Show question

Question

What is sarcasm?

Show answer

Answer

Sarcasm is a type of verbal irony in which a speaker mocks a situation. 

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