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'Oral' or 'Verbal'?

Is it really against the "rules" to use "verbal" to mean "spoken"?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
A lawyer making an oral argument in court.

Many style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and The Economist Style Guide all say you shouldn’t use the word “verbal” to mean something that is spoken. Instead, you should use the word “oral” because technically, something that is verbal can be written or spoken.

‘Oral’ and ‘Verbal’ Both Come from Latin

According to Etymonline, “verbal” comes from the Latin word “verbum,” which simply means “word.” The Late Latin form was “verbalis,” meaning “consisting of words” and “relating to verbs,” so you won’t be surprised to hear that the word “verb” also comes from the same root as “verbal.” So if something verbal just relates to words, it can be written or spoken, and that is still one of the the current definitions.

Oral” on on the other hand, refers only to things that are spoken. It comes from the Late Latin word “oralis,” which essentially means “mouth.” 

Garner’s Modern English Usage says that it’s common for people to use “verbal” to mean “oral.” He puts it at stage 4 on his language change index, which means it’s ubiquitous, but not universally accepted. It’s the etiquette equivalent of putting your elbows on the table. 

Well-Known Writers Use ‘Verbal’ to Mean ‘Spoken’

It’s incredibly easy to find examples of well-known writers using “verbal” to mean “spoken.” Here’s an especially clear example from the Nobel laureate Doris Lessing that I found in her novel “The Golden Notebook.”

“The real history of Africa is still in the custody of black storytellers and wise men, black historians, medicine men: it is a verbal history, still kept safe from the white man and his predations. Everywhere, if you keep your mind open, you will find the words not written down.”

Sometimes it’s not clear whether writers means “written” or “spoken” when they use the word “verbal,” but in that case, there’s no mistaking that she is using “verbal” to mean “spoken,” not “written.”

What to Do: ‘Oral’ or ‘Verbal’?

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So, what should you do?

If you’re a writer who has to follow a specific style guide that says you shouldn’t use “verbal” to mean “spoken,” or if you’re a lawyer and need to use especially precise language, you should stick with “oral” to describe spoken words. 

If you aren’t a professional writer, I don’t think you should worry about it too much, but if you do decide to use the word “verbal” to mean written, which is an uncommon but correct use, you should make sure the context makes your meaning clear—unless you’re writing a mystery novel in which the protagonist is a language pedant who uses “verbal” to mean “written” and the misunderstanding is the whole basis for the confusion that ensues. (Sometimes my imagination gets the best of me.)

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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