Verbal irony is a figure of speech where the literal words being used opposes the real meaning behind them.
In simple terms, verbal irony contradicts what is being said by the character or person speaking.
As a literary technique it, helps to add intrigue, drama and humour to storylines and characters, making the plot all the more engaging for audiences.
We can see instances of verbal irony in our daily lives too. For example, suppose you look outside and there is a terrible blizzard, then your friend looks outside and says, “Perfect day for the beach!” This is an example of verbal irony.
Consider these examples of verbal irony, so you can familiarize yourself with the term.
- The leader of an AA meeting says “I could use a drink right now.”
- A waiter working at a restaurant is being short with their customers. Someone comments on the waiter’s poor bedside manners, “Wow, this waiter has the best manners!”
- A weatherman saying “It’s not like I know about when it’s going to rain next.”
- A mother looks at her child’s messy bedroom: “I love how your room is always so clean!”
- A couple of teenagers see a “Do Not Enter” sign. One pipes up: “Let’s enter.”
- In a stressful situation, a girl says “Well this isn’t this just pleasant as ever.”
- When a girl’s mother is an hour late to lunch she says “I appreciate how you’re always on time mom!”
- After a bad accident a boy’s friends tells him “your car has never looked better!”
- A woman walks into a cold room with a broken heating system, she points at the nonfunctional heating system and states “Well it’s pretty warm in here, isn’t it?”
- A woman’s shoes get drenched in the rain and she says “I think the water just gave them a new fashionable touch!”
Quick Summary: Anna is being chased by a scary monster, which she refers to as a marshmallow.
Frozen, the popular animated Disney musical film and kids movie includes verbal irony.
At a point in the film, Elsa builds a scary snow man/monster to chase away her sister, Anna. Olaf, a friendly snowman, is being chased by the snow monster.
When he approaches Anna, he tells her that he is being chased by a “marshmallow”. His choice of words make it seem like the snow monster is a sweet, benevolent creature, even though it’s anything but that.
Verbal irony, in this case, helps introduce comedic relief to what might be an otherwise stressful situation for the characters in the movie.
Quick Summary: Belle tells Gaston “I don’t deserve you” when Belle and the audience know she is a far better person than Gaston.
In Disney’s iconic film, The Beauty and the Beast, the character Gaston (who is vain, shallow, and thinks all women desire him) pursues Belle. We know that Belle is better than Gaston, but at a point in the film Belle tells Gaston, “I just don’t deserve you!” When, in fact, she deserves much more than what Gaston has to offer her.
Belle herself knows this, and so do we, the audience. The real meaning of her words conflicts with their literal meaning, making it a clear case of verbal irony.
Quick Summary: After Brutus betrays Cesar, Mark Antony calls him an honorable man. Everyone is aware that this is the exact opposite of the truth.
Verbal irony occurs in the play Julius Caeser by William Shakespeare. The character Mark Antony, when speaking about Brutus, describes him as an “honorable man”. This is verbally ironic since he makes this statement immediately after Brutus betrays Caesar. Clearly, Mark Antony considers Brutas anything but honorable.
Mark Antony’s literal words conflict with their meaning, or the intention he has in making that statement. This therefore is another clear example of verbal irony from Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser.
Quick Summary: A man is in the middle of a plane crash and says “Well isn’t this nice.” Clearly, it isn’t!
The song responsible for driving all English teachers nuts, “Ironic” by Alanis Morrissette may confuse the meaning of irony on a broader level. Alanis understands Verbal irony, however.
See these lyrics, which are verbally ironic:
Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down, he thought
“Well, isn’t this nice?”
The “Well, isn’t this nice?” is verbal irony. Clearly, a plane crashing is not nice at all!
Quick Summary: President Muffley tries to break up an argument in the war room by saying “You can’t fight here! This is a war room!” It’s ironic, because the room is named after fighting!
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is a dark comedy and satire from 1964, about the Cold War.
At a point in the film, a few of the high-ranking officers and army generals get into an argument.
The character, President Merkin Muffley, in an attempt to break up the argument, says to the other men, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”
You can’t fight in most places. That said, if there was a place where you would think you could fight: the war room would be it. This illustrates verbal irony again, since the words oppose their true, non-literal meaning.
Situational irony is when what is expected to happen in a given situation diametrically opposses what in fact happens.
Much of the premise of The Wizard of Oz is based on the concept of situational irony. We have a lion that is without courage (to find later he had it all along), Dorothy goes to the Wizard to find her way home, when she could have done so all along. The Tin Man is looking for a heart, and the Scarecrow wants a brain.
There are hints throughout the story that each of the characters already has what they wish to possess, making The Wizard of Oz perhaps one of the most verbally ironic films to date.
Dramatic Irony occurs when the audience knows more about a situation than the characters do themselves.
Dramatic irony is a device used to keep the audience not only invested in the storyline, but it places the audience a step ahead of the characters, which adds further suspense and keeps the audience engrossed in the story.
We can see an example of dramatic irony in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. King Duncan places his full trust in Macbeth, and states “He was a gentleman in whom I built an absolute trust.” Though King Duncan is unaware, the audience is aware of the fact that Macbeth is actually the one that plans to kill Duncan, making this an instance of dramatic irony.
For more, see my 12 types of irony article.
Literary devices like verbal irony are used in various ways, and there are numerous examples in all types of media. Irony in all forms adds substance and nuance to stories, it brings humour to what may otherwise be bland scenes and/or character dialogue. It helps add suspense and creates tension in the story. Hopefully, now that you are apprised of the concept, you’ll be able to point it out when you see it.