Oral and Verbal

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The adjective oral means pertaining to speech or to the mouth. 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

Elizabeth Coelho: Oral language has existed much longer than written language, and most people speak more often than they read or write.

Joyce Antler: 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.

William Pride and O.C. Ferrell: Copy is the verbal portion of an advertisement and may include headlines, sub-headlines, body copy, and signature.

David Lehman: Jargon is the verbal sleight of hand that makes the old hat seem newly fashionable.

Henry Hitchings: [A]ll language is verbal, but only speech is oral.

Bryan A. Garner: 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.

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)