Writers Talk About Writing
Oral History: Of Spoken and Written Words
We welcome back Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review. Here she considers why writers avoid the word "oral" and use "verbal" instead.
It's a crazy market, the investors were told by the columnist, and they had to protect themselves. So they shouldn't accept "verbal assurances" that their fund managers were making the right decisions; they needed it in writing.
A court in Tennessee, meanwhile, ruled that "an employee who made "an oral or verbal complaint against an employer" was protected against retaliation.
So does "verbal" mean "spoken" or "written"?
Yes. And therein lies the imprecision.
"Verbal" simply means "expressed in words"; the form of the words is not specified. If you put the words to paper or screen, or to stone tablet, they are "written." If they're spoken, they're "oral."
But sometimes we act as if we're back in grade school, when words that sounded dirty made us, er, titter. We avoid those words for fear of being misinterpreted.
As a result, many writers avoid saying "oral" and say "verbal" instead.
Why this should be so is not clear. After all, colleges have no problem giving "oral exams," doctors can openly advertise a specialty in "oral surgery," and courts hear "oral arguments" without anyone getting all giggly.
And many people have learned that "verbal" means only written, adding to the confusion.
In sports, college athletes make a "verbal commitment" to come play for a school, though too often it's called just "a verbal," making it a noun. (In English, the "acceptable" noun "verbals" are gerunds, infinitives, and participles.) A few times it's even been a verb — "He has verbaled to Cornell" — which is a few times too often.
So are the athletes signing something or have they merely made an "oral" promise? Knowing that could be important, especially in the current scandal-ridden environment.
Enough people use "verbal" in the place of "oral" that Garner's Modern American Usage puts that usage at Stage 4 of the Language-Change Index, meaning it's proper English among all but extreme holdouts.
Still, there's no reason not to use "oral," and it's certainly preferable in cases where the mode of communication is important. As Garner's says: "If you think of oral in a narrow sexual sense, you should immediately wash your mouth out with soap. Otherwise, we may be in danger of losing a perfectly good word."
But if you still resist, there's an easy way out: Use "spoken" for stuff that comes out of your mouth, and "written" for stuff you have to spell. Hope that "verbalizes" it for you.