What is the Difference Between 'Aural' and 'Oral'?

Commonly Confused Words

A woman speaking at a table while two others listen
The difference between "aural" and "oral" is about the difference between hearing and speaking (Photo: Getty / Tom Werner).

The words aural and oral are often confused, most likely because they're nearly homophones (that is, words that sound the same). While the two words are related, they're not interchangeable and in fact are in contrast with one another. Here's what you should know before using these words in your writing or speech.


The adjective aural refers to sounds perceived by the ear. For instance, a musician's aural skills might refer to their ability to identify melodies and intervals by hearing them, rather than seeing them written out in sheet music.

The adjective oral relates to the mouth: spoken rather than written. In everyday life, it's often used in the context of dentistry (i.e. an oral exam checks for cavities, gum disease, etc.). It can also be used to describe something spoken, often in contrast with writing. For instance, a foreign language class might have a two-part exam: a written exam as well as an oral exam that requires speaking the language aloud.


Aural derives from the Latin word auris, which means "ear." Oral dervies from the Latin oralis, which in turn derived from the Latin os, meaning "mouth."


In common speech, aural and oral are often pronounced similarly, which can contribute to the confusion between the two words. However, the vowel sounds at the beginning of each word are technically pronounced differently, and one can consciously emphasize those differences if confusion seems likely.

The first syllable of oral is pronounced as it looks: like the conjunction "or", as in "this or that."

The first syllable of aural, with the "au-" diphthong, sounds more similar to the "ah" or "aw" sound, like in "audio" or "automobile."


  • "Harlem's brand of ragtime was not made to accompany dancing or seduction; its only aim was aural delight. . . . The music flourished where it could feed, and feed off of, high spirits."
    (David A. Jasen and Gene Jones, Black Bottom Stomp. Routledge, 2002)
  • "Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art."
    (Jorge Luis Borges)

Usage Note:

  • "For many speakers of English, these words sound the same. But for all, their meanings are distinct. Aural refers to the ear or to hearing: aural disease, a memory that was predominantly aural. Oral refers to the mouth or to speaking: an oral vaccine, an oral report.
  • "In certain contexts, the difference can be more subtle than might be expected. An oral tradition is one that is conveyed primarily by speech (as opposed to writing, for example), whereas an aural tradition is one that is conveyed primarily by sounds (as opposed to images, for instance)." (The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

Answers to Practice Exercises: Aural and Oral

(a) Tall tales and legends have filtered down to us through oral traditions and early written records.
(b) Her music is the aural equivalent of a deep breath of country air.

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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Nordquist, Richard. "What is the Difference Between 'Aural' and 'Oral'?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/aural-and-oral-1689308. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). What is the Difference Between 'Aural' and 'Oral'? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/aural-and-oral-1689308 Nordquist, Richard. "What is the Difference Between 'Aural' and 'Oral'?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/aural-and-oral-1689308 (accessed April 1, 2023).