I was given an assignment to correct any mistakes in some given sentences. I saw no real mistake in the sentence below:

Preparing to parachute from the airplane, Cameron received verbal instructions instead of written ones.

But the answer says that it is oral instructions, not verbal instructions. However, I think people also say "verbal instructions" and cannot find the difference between these two phrases (even though I've googled). How are they different?

1 Answer 1


While many native English speakers use these interchangeably, "verbal" could be considered less precise. From wiktionary:

oral: 1. Relating to the mouth. 2. Spoken rather than written.

verbal: 1. Of or relating to words. ... 4. Expressly spoken rather than written. ...

Since definition 1 of "verbal" is "of or relating to words," some people argue that all instructions that involve words could be called "verbal instructions." I don't agree with them. However, given that this argument exists about possible ambiguity, the clearest solution is to use "oral instructions," which has no possible ambiguity.

  • In the given sentence verbal can scarcely be misconstrued as meaning "written" seeing that the two are explicitly contrasted, and therefore there's no need to replace it with oral. The ODE gives this example sentence "Patients who understand and can apply written or verbal information and instructions have better outcomes." for the "Spoken rather than written; oral." sense of verbal.
    – user3395
    Jul 24, 2018 at 15:49
  • I agree. I think the people who reject this usage are being obtuse. But they still exist in significant numbers. Jul 24, 2018 at 22:20

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