Pour out, pore over, and poor taste.

Which is it, when you’re reading carefully or studying diligently: do you pour over the subject or pore over it (or poor over it)?

This is an error I see fairly regularly. Not on a daily basis, possibly not even weekly, but  frequently enough to rate a mention. I don’t keep data for these things, but it’s got to be ‘top 100,’ and possibly closer to ‘top 25.’

But in doing research for this post, it doesn’t seem to turn up much, at least as a spelling error. It’s not on any 10-, 25-, 50- or even 100 ‘most common spelling errors’ list that I’ve found. Of these three homophones, only “poor” is buried in the wikipedia list of common spelling errors. It gets only a one line mention in Brians’ Common Errors (I really need to get a print copy of that).

That’s probably because, while these words are often used incorrectly, they’re easy to spell: using the wrong word is easy, actually spelling them wrong is difficult. Automated tools don’t catch this kind of error very well, if at all – they’re “wrong word” errors, often not recognized as misspellings. You can use any of these words – pour, pore, and poor – interchangeably, and your word processor’s spellchecker is unlikely to detect any problem (go ahead – try it).

They’ve got very different meanings, though. Pour has to do with decanting, both as a verb (Ken poured himself a glass of juice)  and a noun (The foundation was completed with a single pour of concrete). OED says the verb probably came into English from the Middle French in the early 14th century (although it wasn’t pressed into service as a noun until the late 18th).

The most common meaning of pore, as a noun, is that of a channel or duct: those pores in the skin that you’re always trying to keep clean. This came through Greek, the Latin porus, and finally Middle French, to find a place in English no later than the late 14th century. As a verb, pore most frequently means to examine or study carefully, with intense concentration. It was also in use by the 14th century, but its origin is uncertain (OED throws up its hands: “Origin unknown.”).

Rounding the group out is poor (lacking, needy, destitute, inferior, lowly, etc.), as both adjective (Kim received a poor grade) and noun (The poor are people, too). It came into English through French as a derivative of the Latin pauper, and has been with us since at least the early 13th century.

With all of these different definitions and spellings alive in the language within a century or two of each other, confusion has probably been with us since the beginning.

It’s easy to create an awkward but perfectly grammatical sentence that uses all three spellings:

Poor Doug felt sweat pour from every pore.

That’s confusing, but not where the most common confusion lies in practice. The problem is usually with that expression to pore over, meaning to study or scrutinize. In error, it’s often written to pour over:

Tom poured over the contract, hoping to find a loophole.

No. Tom pored over the contract. He might pour his heart out to his best friend; the contract might land him in the poorhouse. But no spillage is involved.

Is there a simple way to make sure you get this right? I’d only make this suggestion (this assumes there’s an action involved, so this only concerns the verbs): when you’re trying to decide which word to use (pour or pore), ask if the liquid sense (of pour) fits the situation. Are you literally pouring something out (or over) something else? Or are you figuratively spilling something (your guts; the beans)? If the answer is “no,” then use pore.

When it comes to the nouns, first ask if wealth or quality is involved. If so, then you probably want poor. If not, are you talking about something that’s been poured – molten metal, or concrete – or something with a small hole (pore)? Answering that question should be enough to determine which to use.

Thanks for poring over this – I hope your time was well spent.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to Pour out, pore over, and poor taste.

  1. Pingback: Gynandromorph | thebettereditor

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