Numerous experiments were conducted on an oscillating airfoil in a subsonic wind tunnel. The experiments involved measuring the surface pressure distribution when the model oscillated in two types of motion, pitch and plunge, at three different Reynolds numbers, 0.42, 0.63 and 0.84 million, and over a range of reduced frequencies, k = 0.03–0.09. The unsteady aerodynamic loads were calculated from the surface pressure measurements, 64 ports, along the chord for both upper and lower surfaces of the model. Particular emphasis was placed on the effects of different types of motion on the unsteady pressure distribution of the airfoil at pre-stall, near-stall and post-stall conditions. It was found that variations of the pressure distribution and aerodynamic loads with angle of attack were strongly sensitive to the displacement, oscillation frequency and mean angle of attack. The width of the hysteresis loop, position of the ‘figure-8 shape’ and slope of the pressure coefficient curve are influenced by both types of motion, pitch and plunge. The main difference between plunging and pitching motions is due to the presence of the pitch rate for the pitching motion case, which was absent in the plunging case. Pitch rate had the strongest influence on pressure data in the near-stall and post-stall conditions. The trend of increasing the width of the hysteresis loops of lift coefficients with changing reduced frequency was different in two motions in the pre-stall and post-stall regions. The aerodynamic damping was greater for the pitching case than for the plunging one at higher reduced frequencies due to the existence of the pitch rate in the pitching oscillation, which was reversed at lower reduced frequencies. In the near-stall region, at higher reduced frequency, the dynamic stall angle for the pitching oscillation increased while for the plunging one the effect was minimal. Increasing the oscillation amplitude was more effective for the plunging motion than for the pitching one. The effects of surface grit roughness on the pressure signature for both types of motion were also investigated. Applying the surface roughness near the leading edge affected the performance of the airfoil significantly. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.