Verbal irony is an (English) literary term. Verbal means “having to do with words” and irony means, basically, “things don’t turn out as expected.”
Verbal irony is almost the same thing as sarcasm. It is a device where what you say is the opposite of what you mean.
Here’s an example. Your friend wants you to go shopping with her at Some-Big-Store. You really don’t want to go. You hate Some-Big-Store because it’s loud, crowded, and there is too much of everything. She asks, “Will you come shopping with me at Some-Big-Store?” You reply, using verbal irony,
Oh, I would love to come shopping with you at Some-Big-Store!
But what you really mean is: “I do not want to come shopping with you at Some-Big-Store! I hate Some-Big-Store! Keep me out of there!”
You have just used verbal irony. On the surface, you have said that you would love to come shopping. Deep down, though, you mean, Shopping? With you? At Some-Big-Store? Yuck!
Notice the use of emphasis, in spoken English and written English, to help verbal irony work. You really put stress on the word “love,” as in, “would love to come shopping”. The emphasis or stress on the word love is a CLUE to the reader or listener that you are using verbal irony and you mean the opposite. Again, you mean “I would hate to come shopping at Some-Big-Store.”
(Sarcasm is the same as verbal irony. When you use verbal irony, you are being sarcastic.)
Let’s look at another example. The movies! How about we talk about a sad film, such as Schindler’s List. (Schindler’s List is about the genocide of over six million Jews by Germany during World War II.)
Suppose you say, using verbal irony: “Schindler’s List is a really cheerful movie.”
(Actually, it is not. It is a sad movie that will make you cry. Find out more about Schindler’s List here.)
Now you were using verbal irony (or being sarcastic) when you said “Schindler’s List is a really cheerful movie.” What you meant, deep down, was “Schindler’s List is a sad movie that makes me cry.” Again, what you said, on the surface, was the opposite of what you really meant. And again, you emphasized “really cheerful” to give your reader a CLUE about your real meaning.
That’s verbal irony. Sarcasm. You say “black” when you really mean “white.” You say “I love” when you really mean “I hate.” You say “it’s cheerful” when you really mean “it’s sad.”
You practice it! Try these. What does the speaker really mean? (Answers below. But try these yourself first, before you look at the answers.)
- My room is really neat and clean, yeah.
- Oh, Algebra II is so fun and easy!
- Prisoners in the United States are treated really well.
- Oil sheikhs in the Middle East are so poor!
So, take a piece of paper and write down what
Sentence 1 really means
Sentence 2 really means
Sentence 3 really means, and
Sentence 4 really means
You want the answers? Okay:
- My room is really neat and clean, yeah: This really means “My room is messy.”
- Oh, Algebra II is so fun and easy!: This really means “Algebra II is hard and unpleasant.”
- Prisoners in the United States are treated really well: This really means “Prisoners in the United States are treated poorly and suffer a lot.”
- Oil sheikhs in the Middle East are so poor!: This really means “Oil sheikhs in the Middle East have so much money it’s crazy!”
Now you try it. In the comments, write some examples of verbal irony. (Write some sarcastic remarks.) They can be things you make up, or things you have heard people saying. Extra points if you write both the sarcastic remark, and then its real meaning.
P.S. Thank you for learning this, because I love to write about literary terms. It means I can go to the wonderful book A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams. You can find a link to download Abrams’s Glossary here.
P.P.S. Some people get tired of sarcasm or verbal irony because it’s too easy. You just say the opposite of what you mean and Presto! you have emphasis. Cassandra Clare wrote, in her novel City of Bones, “Sarcasm is the last refuge of the imaginatively bankrupt.”