Oral vs Verbal – Interchangeable or Not?

Oral vs verbal and be confusing, but these two words have slightly different nuances that are worth understanding.

The words oral vs verbal can be confusing for English writers. Both refer to spoken words and communication, and this can make it hard to know which one to choose. Is it an “oral exam” or a “verbal exam?”

These words are actually very similar and can sometimes be interchangeable. Skilled English writers understand how to choose the right word even in these cases where words are very similar. By understanding the definition and etymology of oral and verbal, you can also make the right selection.

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Oral Vs Verbal – Choosing the Right One

Oral vs verbal – interchangeable or not?
Oral vs verbal are actually very similar and can sometimes be interchangeable

So when you are writing about something that involves spoken language, do you refer to verbal or oral language? Here is a closer look at the two words and their meanings to help you choose.

The Meaning of Oral

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, oral means “uttered by the mouth or in words.” or “of, given through, or involving the mouth.” 

Oral is used as an adjective, which means it is used to describe nouns or pronouns. 

Here are some examples of oral used in sentences:

  • The dentist recommended good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing daily.
  • Her oral exam asked her to recite the states and capitals from memory.
  • The student was asked to give an oral report. 
  • Oral tradition is a rich part of many cultural histories. 

Synonyms for Oral

Some synonyms for the word oral include:

  • Spoken
  • Uttered
  • Vocal
  • Voiced

Etymology of Oral

The Latin prefix or- means mouth, and this is the root of the word oral. It also has its roots in the Old Norse word oss, which means mouth of a river.

Definition of Verbal

Oral vs Verbal
The difference between verbal and oral is that oral refers to the mouth, while verbal refers to words

The word verbal means “of, relating to, or consisting of words,” or “consisting of or using words only and not involving action.” The difference between verbal and oral is that oral refers to the mouth, while verbal refers to words. Since words come from the mouth, the two are similar, but they have different connotations.

Like oral, verbal is an adjective. It describes nouns and pronouns. 

Here are some examples of verbal used in sentences:

  • Because they had a verbal agreement and not a written contract, the judge could not hold the person accountable for their actions.
  • Even though he lacked the verbal ability to explain his position, his non-verbal facial expressions showed his discontent.
  • Written language and verbal language have some differences, but skilled speakers and writers should be able to convey similar messages.

Synonyms for Verbal

Some synonyms for verbal include:

  • Lexical
  • Linguistic
  • Rhetorical
  • Vocabulary
  • Wordy

Etymology of Verbal

Verbal comes from the Latin verbum. It also has its roots in the Middle English word verbal and the late Latin word verbalis.

Telling the Difference

If you are choosing between oral vs verbal when writing, consider whether you are talking about words or the mouth. If the connotation of your use is about the mouth, you will use the word oral, such as when talking about oral hygiene or a report delivered via the mouth.

On the other hand, if you are talking about words, you will use verbal most of the time. However, oral can also refer to spoken words, so in these meanings the two words become synonyms .

Thus, it is appropriate to say “oral report” or “oral communication” just as it would be to say “verbal report” and “verbal communication.”

A Final Word on Oral Vs. Verbal

Oral and verbal are two words with slightly different meanings. Oral refers to things that go into or come out of the mouth, while verbal refers to spoken communication. Since spoken communication comes from the mouth and therefore is verbal, writers sometimes get these mixed up.

The rule of thumb for these words is this: if you are writing about talking or speaking, use verbal. If you are talking about something else referring to the mouth, use oral. The one exception to this rule is oral reports and oral exams which are spoken but the word oral is appropriate. 

FAQs on Oral vs Verbal

What is the difference between verbal and oral?

Typically, verbal refers to spoken communication, while oral refers to things having to do with the mouth. Because spoken words come from the mouth, oral can also be used to refer to spoken communication, so in this way the two words can have interchangeable usages.

Is it a verbal report or an oral report?

Though both verbal report and oral report can be correct, the more common way to talk about a spoken report given in a school setting is oral report. If someone is reporting about an event, such as giving a report after a crime to a police officer, verbal report is the more common usage.

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Author

  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.

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