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The Latin proverb Verba volant, scripta manent which literally it means "spoken words fly away, written words remain" is quite commonly used in Italian.

This phrase seems to come from a speech of Caius Titus of the Roman Senate, who suggests that spoken words might easily be forgotten, but written documents can always be conclusive in public matters.

A related, more common, meaning is that if two people want to establish a formal agreement about something, it is better to put it in writing, rather than just having an oral agreement.

(Wikipedia)

The proverb doesn't necessarily suggest mistrust between the parties involved, but that clarity and points that have been discussed and could be forgotten or misunderstood after some time need to be fixed.

I recently used the proverb during a business conversation in English but I realized I was not understood so I had to explain it. I later checked and saw that it actually is not commonly used in English according to Ngram.

A usage example could be:

  • "I suggest we write down our agreement as soon as possible, you know…verba volant."

Is there a common equivalent proverb or other idiomatic expressions in English to suggest the meaning stated above?

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    I'm not aware of anything more colourful than "always get it in writing", which may be more of an adage than an idiom. – Spagirl Mar 10 '17 at 10:50
  • @Spagirl - nice suggestion, sounds like a wise recommendation: books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Mar 10 '17 at 10:53
  • The Latin proverb about words flying away seems quite neutral, as if you may both simply forget what you agreed. I imagine you don't want to suggest that you don't entirely trust the other party; and that, in fact, you don't entirely trust him. I would say " I suggest we write it down, just to make sure we're both on the same page." - – davidlol Mar 10 '17 at 11:32
  • @davidlol - well, both party will benefit from a written agreement compared to a spoken one. – user66974 Mar 10 '17 at 11:38
  • Maybe someone from the medical profession can verify - I've heard that "if it isn't written down, it didn't happen" is a mantra in many hospitals, reminding staff to carefully document everything. – cobaltduck Mar 10 '17 at 15:40
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This concept is often expressed in English by the phrase:

A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on.

It is attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, the Polish American film producer and wit, after he had promised a role to an actress.

Another version is

An oral contract isn't worth the paper it's written on.

This is sometimes called Goldwyn's Law.

  • Interesting, apparently not a commonly used expression though, and a relatively recent one.books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Mar 10 '17 at 9:07
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    @Josh First time I've been on Ngram, I am sure I will owe many hours of pleasure to your introduction.. Doing the search case insensitive and trying the phrase with oral contract, oral agreement, verbal contract and verbal agreement adds up to 0.000 000 6% at the end of the last century, which is close to 'elephant in the room' and 'flying pig'. Is there a rule of thumb which says a reasonably well educated person should be expected to know expressions with an N gram figure above X? – davidlol Mar 10 '17 at 11:26
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put something in (to) print
to publish something; to record something spoken in printed letters.

Another idiom, similar to the Italian “mettere qualcosa nero su bianco” is

put something down in black and white
Fig. to write down the terms of an agreement; to draw up a written contract; to put the details of something down on paper.

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