Sarcasm - Definition and Examples | Using Literary Devices

What is sarcasm? It's when you say something you don't actually mean, usually the opposite. It is most often humorous although it can also be said to make the other person feel silly or foolish. Tone of voice can be important in conveying sarcasm, so it often works better in speech than when it is written. You may have encountered this in texts or other conversations online, where it can be difficult to figure out a person's tone just from the words.

When writers use sarcasm as part of a larger work, they are often able to do it more effectively than what you see in a quick online exchange of messages because there is the space to create context. Sarcasm is a literary device, and literary devices in turn are a type of figurative language. Figurative language encompasses a wide variety of techniques used by writers but also in everyday speech that draws relationships between images, objects or people. While statements using figurative language are not literal, they often convey the writer's point more powerfully than literal language does.

sarcasm in writing

Sarcasm Examples in Everyday Speech

One important point to remember about sarcasm in everyday speech is that how well it works often depends on your relationship with the person you're using it on. You and a good friend might often be sarcastic to one another, and you both have the context to know you are just kidding around with one another. With someone you don't know well, sarcasm can be more easily misunderstood or could be seen as cruel even if you are just trying to make a joke.

  • Your friend: Do you want me to help you with that?
    You: No, I love carrying heavy boxes up four flights of stairs.
  • Your parents: We have to get up at four a.m. to leave for vacation tomorrow.
    You: Great, I can't think of anything more relaxing than getting up in the middle of the night.
  • Situation: You warned your friend that something would turn out badly, and it did.
    You: Well, who could have ever seen this coming?

Examples of Sarcasm in Writing

When a character in a piece of fiction is sarcastic, it can tell you something about that person. You can get similar insight into a writer in a personal essay. Sarcasm can also be useful in driving a point home.

  • Our city's leaders, in their infinite wisdom, somehow managed to spend all of the money from the additional taxes without a single civic improvement to show for it.
  • Max burned the dinner, broke three plates and forgot to defrost the dessert. "You're off to a great start in your chef's career," she said to him.
  • I tend to panic at the thought of being more than 15 minutes from a Starbucks and have been known to change outfits three or four times over the course of a day. Naturally, this made me an excellent candidate for the week-long backpacking trip I decided to sign up for.

Sarcasm Examples by Type

Different types of sarcasm are not really formally defined, but if you are trying to figure out if something is sarcastic or not, it can help to have an idea of some of the categories that a remark might fall into.

  • Flattery: Sometimes, when someone says something flattering to you, it's hard to tell if they are being serious or sarcastic. Other times, it's obvious, such as if your brother walks in after falling in a mud puddle outside: "You look great!" you might say.
  • Self-deprecation: Self-deprecation means making fun of yourself. You might be playing a game with friends and losing badly. "I'm great at this," you would say.
  • Dry or deadpan: This is usually delivered very seriously, and sometimes, especially if you don't know the person well, you might question whether it is a joke. Sarcastic jokes by comedians are often of the dry or deadpan style as well. An example might be if someone comes into the room where you are watching the news and turns it off. "Thanks, I would hate to be well-informed" you would say with a completely neutral expression.
  • Insulting: Sarcasm can be used to insult someone, either in a friendly or a mean way. If you always get lost, your friends might say, "We can always count on you to show us the scenic route."
  • Juvenile: Sarcastic remarks can often be juvenile or silly.
    Your brother: I failed my driving test.
    You: Way to go!

One way that sarcasm differs from other forms of verbal irony is its intent. It is always deployed with the aim to mock or satirize. Verbal irony also involves saying the opposite of what the speaker means, but it tends to be subtler and gentler. Related literary devices include hyperbole, in which you exaggerate to make a point, and satire, in which you use different types of figurative language in order to mock ideas or people. One of the most important things to remember about all these approaches is that they have to be deployed with caution and skill or your message can be misunderstood.

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