You know how we often refer to a spoken agreement as a verbal agreement, thinking that the term “verbal” means “spoken”?
Well, it turns out that we have not been entirely accurate in using the term “verbal.”
Strictly speaking, the adjective verbal means “relating to words” and therefore refers to BOTH spoken and written words. This is why some strict grammarians prefer to use the term “oral agreement” when referring to an agreement that is merely spoken.
The term verbal has, however, evolved. The New Oxford American Dictionary notes that the term “verbal agreement” is widely accepted, thus:
“It is sometimes said that the true sense of the adjective verbal is ‘of or concerned with words,’ whether spoken or written (as in verbal abuse), and that it should not be used to mean ‘spoken rather than written’ (as in a verbal agreement). For this strictly ‘spoken’ sense, it is said that the adjective oral should be used instead. In practice, however, verbal is well established in this sense and, even in legal contexts, a verbal agreement is understood to mean a contract whose accepted terms have been spoken rather than written.”
Merriam-Webster agrees, citing the following uses of the term verbal:
- relating to or consisting of words. Example: The job requires someone with strong verbal [Note: This refers to someone who is good at writing and speaking.]
- spoken rather than written. Examples: They had a verbal agreement to finish the work. We gave only verbal instructions.
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