aural vs. oral

What is the difference between aural and oral?

Aural means “relating to, characterized by, or perceived by the ear,” and by extension describes that which is heard or consists of listening. Oral, on the other hand, means “relating to, characterized by, or perceived by the mouth”; by extension, it is used to describe that which is spoken or consists of speech.
Both words are most commonly pronounced /ˈɔrəl/, and they can be particularly tricky because they are often used in the same kind of way. Consider the following two examples:
  • “There’s going to be an aural exam on Wednesday.”
  • “There’s going to be an oral exam on Wednesday.”
Both sentences are completely correct, but mean different things. In the first, the exam is going to be based on listening, while the second sentence is describing an exam based on speaking.

Spelling Tricks and Tips

When we are deciding which spelling to use in our writing, we can remember that aural has the same general meaning as audio, while the O in oral looks like an open mouth.
In speech, though, it might be best to avoid aural where possible so as not to confuse the listener. For example, our previous example could be reworked as:
  • “There’s going to be a listening exam on Wednesday.”
or
  • “The exam on Wednesday will be based on listening.”
Now the meaning is completely unambiguous, whether spoken or read.
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