Verbal Irony - Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift.

Nastasic / Getty Images 

Verbal irony is a trope (or figure of speech) in which the intended meaning of a statement differs from the meaning that the words appear to express.

Verbal irony can occur at the level of the individual word or sentence ("Nice hair, Bozo"), or it may pervade an entire text, as in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal."

Jan Swearingen reminds us that Aristotle equated verbal irony with "understatement and verbal dissembling--that is with saying or expressing a veiled or guarded version of what one means" (Rhetoric and Irony, 1991).

The expression verbal irony was first used in English criticism in 1833 by Bishop Connop Thirlwall in an article on the Greek playwright Sophocles.


  • "In [the 1994 movie] Reality Bites, Winona Ryder, applying for a newspaper job, is stumped when asked to 'define irony.' It’s a good question. Ryder replies, 'Well, I can’t really define irony . . . but I know it when I see it.' Really?
    "Irony requires an opposing meaning between what’s said and what’s intended. Sounds simple, but it’s not. A paradox, something that seems contradictory but may be true, is not an irony. The Times stylebook, which, believe me, can be harsh, offers useful advice:
    "The loose 'use of irony and ironically, to mean an incongruous turn of events, is trite. Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity, and paradox is an irony, even loosely. And where irony does exist, sophisticated writing counts on the reader to recognize it.'"
    (Bob Harris, "Isn’t It Ironic? Probably Not." The New York Times, June 30, 2008)

Verbal Irony as Criticism

"What separates ironic comments from merely critical comments is that the intended criticism is often not obvious and not meant to be obvious to all participants (part of the face-saving factor). Let us compare the following examples which all share the same situational context: the addressee has once again left the door open. To get the hearer to close the door, a speaker may make any one of the following remarks:

(1) Shut the goddamn door!
(2) Shut the door!
(3) Please shut the door!
(4) Would you please shut the door?
(5) You always leave the door open.
(6) The door seems to be open.
(7) I am so glad you remembered to shut the door.
(8) I think people who shut doors when it's cold outside are really considerate.
(9) I love sitting in a draft.

Examples (1) through (4) are direct requests varying by the amount of politeness used. Examples (5) through (9) are indirect requests, and, except for (5), which functions as a complaint, are all ironic. Even though the request for action in (5) is indirect, the criticism is obvious, whereas in examples (6) through (9) the criticism is hidden to different degrees. We see here that irony is more than the mere opposition of a surface and an underlying reading. The speaker of (8) in all actuality probably believes that people who shut doors when it's cold outside are really considerate. Thus, there is no discernible opposition of a surface and an underlying reading. Nevertheless, examples like (8) should also be covered by any definition of irony."
(Katharina Barbe, Irony in Context. John Benjamins, 1995)

Swift's Verbal Irony

"The simplest form of 'high relief' verbal irony is the antiphrastic praise for blame, for example, the 'Congratulations!' we offer to the 'smart Alec' who has let the side down. . . . [Jonathan] Swift's Directions to Servants, his satire of the faults and follies of servants, takes the form of advising them to do what they too frequently already do and reproducing their lame excuses as valid reasons: 'In Winter Time light the Dining-Room Fire but two Minutes before Dinner is served up, that your Master may see, how saving you are of his Coals.'"
(Douglas Colin Muecke, Irony and the Ironic. Taylor & Francis, 1982)

Socratic Irony

  • "The everyday irony that, today, we identify in simple cases of verbal 'irony' has its origin in [the] Socratic technique of eironeia. We use a word but expect others to recognise that there is more to what we are saying than the uses of everyday language." (Claire Colebrook, Irony. Routledge, 2004)
  • "I value the privilege of sitting beside you very highly, for I have no doubt that you will fill me with an ample draught of the finest wisdom." (Socrates addressing Agathon in Plato's Symposium, c. 385-380 BC)
  • "Verbal irony forms the basis for what we mean when we say irony. In ancient Greek comedy, there was a character called an eiron who seemed subservient, ignorant, weak, and he played off a pompous, arrogant, clueless figure called the alazon. Northrop Frye describes the alazon as the character 'who doesn't know that he doesn't know,' and that's just about perfect. What happens, as you can tell, is that the eiron spends most of his time verbally ridiculing, humiliating, undercutting, and generally getting the best of the alazon, who doesn't get it. But we do; irony works because the audience understands something that eludes one or more of the characters."  (Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor. HarperCollins, 2003)
  • Auden's "Unknown Citizen"
    "Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
    That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
    When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
    He was married and added five children to the population,
    Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
    And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
    Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
    Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard."
    (W. H. Auden, "The Unknown Citizen." Another Time, 1940)
  • The Lighter Side of Verbal Irony
    Commander William T. Riker: Charming woman!
    Lt. Commander Data: [voice-over] The tone of Commander Riker's voice makes me suspect that he is not serious about finding Ambassador T'Pel charming. My experience suggests that in fact, he may mean the exact opposite of what he says. Irony is a form of expression I have not yet been able to master.​​
    ("Data's Day," Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1991)

Also Known As: rhetorical irony, linguistic irony

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Verbal Irony - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Verbal Irony - Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Verbal Irony - Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).