My brother is taking a course in professional writing that is required for his criminal justice degree…and I’ve been receiving panicked phone calls at random times asking for explanations of various fine points of grammar and punctuation. I hide my glee a little bit so he will send me tons of pictures of my 3-week-old nephew in payment gratitude for my help, but the truth is I am absolutely delighted. I could talk all day about how to use a semicolon properly and whether the punctuation goes inside or outside the quotation marks!
So when he got his first big assignment back, I took the professor’s corrections very personally. My brother worked really hard researching and writing his project (especially considering he has a newborn); I simply gave it a final proofread. But I am a PROFESSIONAL words person! I’ve spent my entire adult life getting really good at editing other people’s writing, from simple comma corrections to debating the nuances of vocabulary choices. So I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that his prof marked him down for a word choice error! That’s right, faithful blog readers, yours truly, who wrote this bossy post about sneaky homophones, let a vocabulary mistake get past me!
In one section my brother references a video of a police shooting in which the officer gives a “verbal instruction to the victim.” The prof had flagged this as an incorrect use of “verbal” where it should be “oral.” “What is he talking about???” my brother asked, and I had to, shamefacedly, explain that technically, in the dictionary, “verbal” means written; “oral” means spoken. Your VCR manual contains verbal instructions. Your neighbor yelling “Turn down the TV!” is an oral instruction. Perhaps a distinction that has eroded in common usage, but just the kind of nitpicking that I usually live for! A very humbling moment.
What do you think? Are there any other vocabulary nuances that only the dictionary (and writing profs) are likely to care about? Will you take care to distinguish between “verbal” and “oral”?