Word Count

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.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday September 2nd 2011, 5:43 AM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
obviously there is a difference between oral and verbal abuse ?

how can anyone be verbose ? or would it be orally excessive ?
Friday September 2nd 2011, 12:56 PM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
It is most unfortunate that purient thoughts have caused us to lose many words that express pure meanings.

Gay is a good example. Gay to me means happy, go lucky, and care free. The state of being that most young people (even into old age) should enjoy. But, I've had to eliminate that word from my vocabulary, even though I have never used it to denote sexual orientation. There are more appropriate words for sexual expressions. Incidentally, those words don't have to be vulgar, either.
Friday September 2nd 2011, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Lee S. (Tucson, AZ)
The passive acquiescence of so many of the persons charged with watching and teaching our language means that another greatly useful word--and distinction--will soon be lost. Apparently it is just too much to expect that most people will learn and care about the language. And if you find any errors in the preceding text, never mind: you know what I mean.
Saturday September 3rd 2011, 1:44 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Yes, oral revokes a sensation of kissing etc... when we pronounce the word. Spoken is a better term, I feel but as I used the term verbal often, it gives me an impression of cultured situation.
It is Ms. Merrill's thoughtful contribution to specify these terms and therefore deserves credit.
Monday September 5th 2011, 1:58 AM
Comment by: Carlos B. (Spring, TX)
From Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (5 Sep. 2011).


4 : spoken rather than written : ORAL <invitations to them may be verbal or by way of a short, informal note -- Noreen Routledge>

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