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Verbal Irony Definition: the difference between the words that a character speaks, and what the character actually means or implies

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is used to highlight differences in appearance and reality, a character’s true intentions, and themes. It can make a situation more funny, or more tense. It can also be used to create dramatic irony for the audience. Verbal irony is most commonly used in the form of sarcasm, but that is not always the case.

The two most common types of verbal irony are overstatement and understatement. An understatement is used to minimize the significance of a situation; likewise, an overstatement uses exaggeration to conflate the importance of a situation or event in a story. For example, Holden uses understatement when he is talking to Mrs. Morrow in The Catcher in the Rye when he says, “No, everybody’s fine at home… It’s me. I have to have this operation… It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.” Holden doesn’t want to tell Mrs. Morrow the real truth about why he’s left Pencey in the middle of the night, but at the same time, he wants to downplay his excuse because he knows he’s just created a huge lie. In fact, brain surgery is a very serious operation.

Notable Verbal Irony Examples in Literature

Dimmesdale pleads for Hester to reveal Pearl’s father’s identity in The Scarlet Letter


“Indeed, I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo, till I behold him – dead –
Is my poor heart for a kinsman vexed.”

“But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.”



Be sure to check out our article, Three Types of Irony!

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