Oral and Verbal

Commonly Confused Words

Young woman smiling, close-up of mouth
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The adjective oral means pertaining to speech or to the mouth. (The homophone aural, by the way, refers to listening and hearing.)

The adjective verbal means pertaining to words, whether written or spoken (though verbal is sometimes treated as a synonym for oral). See the usage notes below.

In traditional grammar, the noun verbal refers to a verb form that functions as a noun or a modifier rather than as a verb.

Examples of Oral and Verbal

  • "Oral language has existed much longer than written language, and most people speak more often than they read or write." (Elizabeth Coelho, Adding English: A Guide to Teaching in Multilingual Classrooms, 2004)
  • "Although candidates with defective 'foreign' speech were likely to be screened out early on by teacher training programs, even well-spoken Jewish immigrant girls frequently failed the oral exam." (Joyce Antler, The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century. The Free Press, 1997)
  • "Copy is the verbal portion of an advertisement and may include headlines, sub-headlines, body copy, and signature." (William Pride and O.C. Ferrell, Marketing, 2006)
  • "Jargon is the verbal sleight of hand that makes the old hat seem newly fashionable." (David Lehman, Signs of the Times, 1991)

Usage Notes

  • "[A]ll language is verbal, but only speech is oral." (Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
  • Oral communication is speech, conversation. Verbal ability is one's skill with words, and the verbal section of the SAT, the college entrance examination, tests a high school student's knowledge of written language. . . .

    "Verbal and oral are now so inextricably confounded that the tautological phrase verbal and written has become entrenched: 'The position requires . . . strong verbal and written communication skills' (RenewableEnergyWorld.com) . . ..

    "This may seem like a morass, but don't despair. Avoiding this accident of style is easier than you may think. Just remember that oral refers to spoken words, written refers to written words, and verbal refers to anything expressed in words, whether spoken or written." (Charles Harrington Elster, The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly. St. Martin's Press, 2010)

    Verbal Redundancies

    • "The misuse of verbal for oral has a long history and is still common. Nevertheless, the distinction is worth fighting for, especially in legal prose. . . .

      "Because verbal is always used in reference to words, verbal definition is redundant, as there can be no definition without words. . . . Similarly, verbal is redundant in such phrases as verbal promise, verbal denial, verbal affirmation, and verbal criticism, as these activities usually cannot occur without words." (Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1995)

    Practice Exercise

    Test your knowledge of the difference between oral and verbal by filling in the correct word.

    • (a) "Like Corso, Ray had spent his time in jail reading, writing poetry, and educating himself. His poetry was designed to be the _____ equivalent of jazz." (Bill Morgan, The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, 2010)
    • (b) "It would be unlawful for an employer to administer a written employment test to an individual who has informed the employer, prior to the administration of the test, that he is dyslexic and unable to read. In such a case, the employer should reasonably accommodate the applicant's disability by administering an _____ test as an alternative." (Margaret P. Spencer, "The Americans With Disabilities Act: Description and Analysis." Human Resource Management and the Americans With Disabilities Act, 1995)

      Answers to Practice Exercises

      • (a) "Like Corso, Ray had spent his time in jail reading, writing poetry, and educating himself. His poetry was designed to be the verbal equivalent of jazz." (Bill Morgan, The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, 2010)
      • (b) "It would be unlawful for an employer to administer a written employment test to an individual who has informed the employer, prior to the administration of the test, that he is dyslexic and unable to read. In such a case, the employer should reasonably accommodate the applicant's disability by administering an oral test as an alternative." (Margaret P. Spencer, "The Americans With Disabilities Act: Description and Analysis." Human Resource Management and the Americans With Disabilities Act, 1995)

      Answers to Practice Exercises: oral and verbal.

      (a) "Like Corso, Ray had spent his time in jail reading, writing poetry, and educating himself. His poetry was designed to be the verbal equivalent of jazz."
      (Bill Morgan, The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, 2010)

      (b) "It would be unlawful for an employer to administer a written employment test to an individual who has informed the employer, prior to the administration of the test, that he is dyslexic and unable to read.

      In such a case, the employer should reasonably accommodate the applicant's disability by administering an oral test as an alternative."
      (Margaret P. Spencer, "The Americans With Disabilities Act: Description and Analysis." Human Resource Management and the Americans With Disabilities Act, 1995)

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

      200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "Oral and Verbal." ThoughtCo, Oct. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/oral-and-verbal-1689451. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 11). Oral and Verbal. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/oral-and-verbal-1689451 Nordquist, Richard. "Oral and Verbal." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/oral-and-verbal-1689451 (accessed January 24, 2018).