Verbally and Orally

By Maeve Maddox

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Laurel asks:
Can you please clarify when to use ‘verbally’ and when to use ‘orally’?

Verbally comes from Latin verbum, “word.” Its adjective form verbal is often used in the sense of “spoken,” and contrasted with “written.” Here are some examples from a discussion about giving notice to a landlord:

If you give notice verbally and not in writing, is it legally binding?

A verbal agreement should be binding. BUT there is nothing like a written agreement

It’s always better to do everything in writing…

Nothing works verbally in law.

Verbally is used in other contexts to mean “with words” or “words without action”:

The woman abused her children verbally.

He has no patience with people who verbally profess charity, but do nothing to relieve the misery of others.

Orally comes from Late Latin oralis, which comes from Latin os, “mouth.” It means “by mouth.” Like verbally, orally is sometimes use in the sense of “spoken”:

Teachers shall require book reports to be presented orally.

More often, orally means “by mouth”

How to get a 3 year old to take medicine orally

How to Give Cat Medicine Orally

Since taking medicine “orally” involves “swallowing” it, the following example from the web is overkill:

[What] if someone orally swallowed some Lidocaine…?

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12 Responses to “Verbally and Orally”

  • PreciseEdit

    I remember when college entrance exams rated a student’s verbal skills, meaning writing skills. Then, there’s also the connection of “verbal” to “verbatim,” referring to the recall of exact words heard or read.

    My tendency is to use “verbal” to refer to the skill of expressing ideas with words (written and spoken) and “oral” to refer only to spoken expressions, or the spoken implementation of verbal skills, making “oral” a subset of “verbal”

    A person with strong verbal skills may be able to make a good oral presentation as well as write clearly and persuasively.

    But, as you noted, “verbally” is commonly used to mean “orally.”

    Ain’t language fun? Sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers.

  • Cecily

    Don’t forget “aural”, which relates to hearing and is frequently confused with “oral”. For example, in England, most exams in a foreign language include an aural exam, where you listen and talk.

  • Jeff

    I agree with PreciseEdit. Since verbally refers to the act of using words, I always felt that verbally can refer to either written or spoken expression. With that interpretation, the example “If you give notice verbally and not in writing, is it legally binding?” does not seem to be correct? What do you think?

  • ApK

    >>Since taking medicine “orally” involves “swallowing” it, the following example from the web is overkill:

    [What] if someone orally swallowed some Lidocaine…?<<

    I think it's redundant for the reverse reason. Swallowing something implies taking it orally (else I don't want to know about it), but taking something orally does not always mean you swallow it.
    I'm thinking of mouthwash that you spit out or topical gum medicine, etc.

  • Cygnifier

    Given that “verbally” means “with words”, in order to be clear, one might be better off using “oral”or “spoken” when one means to get across the idea of “spoken using words, not written”. Otherwise a reader or a listener can never be completely sure just what is meant even if a colloquial meaning of “oral communication using words” is intended. This also fits better with the technical uses of the term “verbal”. In academic disciplines such as Communication, Sociology, Psychology, and Linguistics, human communication is by convention divided into two key categories: verbal and nonverbal. The first means “using language/words” while the second refers to such things as body language, use of time and space, facial expressions, touch, clothing, vocalics, etc. An effective way of understanding human communication maps out communication behavior using two intersecting sets of behaviors: verbal/nonverbal and oral/nonoral. So when someone means “with words” and “without voicing”, they are referring to “verbal nonoral” communication. Thus the word “verbal” alone to mean “spoken” is not precisely accurate, even if colloquially common, and is best avoided if one wishes to avoid ambiguity. [OK. OK. I must admit this is one of my personal top-10 pet peeves too. The colloquial use creates great difficulties for students “getting” that verbal includes written as well as spoken communication.]

  • Andrew Toynbee

    When I was in training (back in my youth!) we received Oral exams…and verbal reprimands.

    How does that work?

  • Cecily

    @Andrew: You weren’t a dental student, were you?

  • Andrew Toynbee

    Lol @ Cecily

  • Cecily

    The Concise OED is not so clear-cut about the meaning of “verbal” and suggests it can be synonymous with “oral”:


    → adj.
    1. relating to or in the form of words.
    2. spoken rather than written; oral.
    3. (Grammar) relating to or derived from a verb.

    → n.
    1. (Grammar) a word or words functioning as a verb.
    2. (also verbals) (Brit. informal) abuse; insults.
    3. (also verbals) (Brit. informal) a verbal statement containing a damaging admission alleged to have been made to the police, offered as evidence by the prosecution.

    → v.
    (verbals, verballing, verballed) (Brit. informal) attribute a damaging statement to (a suspect), especially dishonestly.

    – DERIVATIVES verbally adv.

    How to cite this entry:
    “verbal adj.” The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Twelfth edition . Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.

  • Peter

    FWIW, I came across this “verbal IQ” test the other day:

    (I scored 152; a couple of questions could be interpreted two ways, but it doesn’t show the “correct” answers…)

  • DW

    Oral is too easily confused with aural, and I suspect I am not the only one who avoids using it in speech for that reason, despite the fact that “verbal” does not technically imply vocalization.

  • Doug Miller

    The Concise OED, like its bigger, older cousin, is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Contrast that with something like Fowler or Follett. I’ll look for their takes if I can climb over the boxes of all my other books to get to them.

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