How to avoid confusing ‘pore’ and ‘pour’

The homophones pour and pore are sometimes confused: typically pour replaces pore in some form of the phrase pore over. For readers who notice the error – and many do – it can conjure up surreal images of liquid people flowing over the material at hand.

The mistake is usually limited to casual contexts, but it occasionally slips through into edited prose, such as this Irish Independent story from last week:

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says this mistaken use of pour “seems to be growing more common in less attentively edited publications”. Yet the words are not difficult to distinguish. Here are brief explanations, along with mnemonics – if you need them – to help remember the appropriate spellings.

Pore as a verb is usually followed by over, less often (but increasingly) by through, and sometimes – in the sense ‘to ponder’ – by on. Pore over means to read or study attentively; to scrutinise: you might pore over a text or a map. Think of the re common to pore and read.

Pour normally has to do with flowing or causing to flow: decanting a liquid or granular substance out of a container. You might pour tea from a pot, or sand from a bucket. Notice that the u in pour conveniently resembles a container.

Why people replace pore with pour is unclear to me; maybe the familiar spelling of pour comes more readily to mind, or perhaps pore is thought of only as a noun (referring to small holes in skin, rocks, or plants). But the words are easily kept distinct with the mnemonics I’ve set out above. If you have a different trick, do let me know.

Edit:

The mistake appears in Steven Bach’s otherwise well-proofread Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate. From my Faber & Faber edition, 1986:

Steven Bach - final cut - dreams and disaster in the making of heaven's gate - pore pour

And in Jenny Diski’s Like Mother, Vintage edition, 1990:

Like Mother - pore pour confused

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25 Responses to How to avoid confusing ‘pore’ and ‘pour’

  1. John Cowan says:

    For many people, of course, poor is also a homonym.

  2. stuartnz says:

    I’d never thought of the “letter ‘u’ as a container” mnemonic, that will be a helpful one to keep in mind, thanks. I do wonder, though, whether this is a battle already lost. It seems that “loose” is rapidly becoming the standard spelling of “lose”, moving well beyond the realm of the typo and the poor spellers, and perhaps “pore” will similarly loose out in the end?

  3. Jonathon says:

    “Why people replace pore with pour is unclear to me; maybe the familiar spelling of pour comes more readily to mind”.

    This is just my intuition, but I think that’s it in a nutshell. This sort of thing seems to happen a lot with words that are relatively rare but commonly appear in fixed phrases, like “hark back” or “wreak havoc”.

  4. Stan says:

    John: Yes. I wonder if poor is confused with either pore or pour to a comparable extent.

    Stuart: I just thought of that mnemonic as I prepared the post; glad you like it. Is loose for lose really approaching standardhood? It’s definitely a very common misspelling, but I haven’t been seeing it in edited writing. I wouldn’t consider it, or pour for pore, to be a lost battle: not even close.

    Jonathon: Good to have my hunch corroborated, if only by another hunch. Maybe someone who confuses the words can offer an insight into why it happens.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Jonathon,

    Hmm… isn’t “harken back” the correct phraseology, rather than “hark back’? (Or maybe you were pointing out the WRONG way to phrase it?)

    I know a common error is “wreck” havoc, rather than the correct, “wreak” havoc. (Although the aftermath of said havoc may have left a wreck, or two, in its wake. Just sayin’.)

    Now “reek” havoc, on the other hand, would be even further off- base than “wreck”, although if the havoc had transpired in say a stinking city garbage dump, or a marshy bog ‘reeking’ of methane gas, although technically still incorrect, spelling-wise, the foul olfactory implication could still have some lame pun appeal; if indeed, one were intentionally punning around. No?

  6. I can see how someone might make a case for “pour”, given that attention or gaze could be thought of as something that flows out of the eyes. But it’s not a very convincing image. Pouring is next to effortless (since gravity does all the work) and fills the entire space from a single location, which is very different from the deliberate process implied by “pore” of paying attention to each thing in its turn.

    Commenters have raised the subject of loose vs lose, which reminds me of an old quote I read years ago, not to be taken too seriously. “If a coin falls out of a man’s pocket, lose is what it is to the man and loose is what it is to the pocket.”

  7. Picky says:

    Hark and harken both OK, I think, Alex, although hark is reckoned the earlier in this usage, I believe.

  8. Eugene says:

    Frequency is an issue in spelling, of course. The collocation “pour out” gets almost 100 times as many google hits as “pore over.” For the latter 5 of the first 11 results are writing/grammar tips. Everyone is very familiar with “pour” and generally not so familiar with “pore.”
    I’ve had to look this one up in the past, as I had heard the expression “pore over” many times but couldn’t recall seeing it in print. I didn’t have a visual image.
    I doubt that many writers would mistake “poor” for either of the others, simply because the word is so common, the meaning is so familiar, and the part of speech is different.

  9. Diane Nicholls says:

    Interesting, Stan. I don’t want to complicate things, but ‘paw over’ seems to be quite frequent, too, and used in much the same way, e.g. (from UKWac) ‘Well, I’ve only been living with Nick for a few months, but I’ve been pawing over his photo albums and top secret files.'; ‘I sat there for hours and hours pawing over the information'; ‘After much pawing over timetables and maps and calculation of walking and drinking speeds a proposed itinerary was agreed’. Does ‘paw’ need to be added to the list or is it different somehow?

  10. Thinking about it some more, the ‘re’ in ‘pore’ might invoke not only ‘read’ but also ‘research’, and the ‘e’ might invoke ‘examine’.

    Moreover, the goal of poring over something is often to find the valuable information hidden in the data, which might be thought of as analogous to extracting metal from an ore. (I grant you it’s a stretch.)

    I’m not really a fan of mnemonics like these (and only make these suggestions because it’s kind of fun), but I remember finding them useful sometimes when I was in primary school.

  11. Eugene says:

    I find “paw over” interesting. Maybe it’s the homonym that confuses speakers of non-rhotic dialects.
    There might be a useful distinction here. If you pore over my photo albums (examine them carefully) I’ll be flattered. If you paw over them (handle them clumsily) I’m going to be really annoyed.

  12. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Eugene,

    Interestingly, if one were to travel to parts of New England in the U.S. northeast, particularly rural Maine (or even downtown Bangor, or Portland, for that matter), one could likely hear some local-yokel say, “she ‘pawed over’ her granny’s old photo album well past midnight”, meaning ‘pored over’, (as in perused closely), rather than the way it sounds, i.e., she clumsily handled every sepia-toned, or B&W photo, leaving evidence of her greasy fingerprints on ever image.

    This distinctive New England regional inflection shows up in pronouncing such common words as “car’, which comes across sounding like ‘caw’, and “park’ which comes off as ‘pock’. So in Boston, or Lowell, Mass., one would basically ‘pock’ the ‘caw’ in the ‘grawge’.

    I guess we are talking about examples of non-rhotic accents here?

    (I’m sure rhotic vs. non-rhotic discussions has been frequent on this site; almost ad nausea I would imagine. But I’m relatively new here, so thanks for the indulgence.)

    @ Picky. As usual, regarding proper English language usage, you are clearly correct, in the question at hand re/ the use of “hark” and “harken”, w/ both forms being totally acceptable.

    I’m sure there was a “hark”, or two, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and definitely in Milton’s “Paradise Lost’.

    Hmm… I had a strange feeling I was ‘harkening up’ the wrong tree, there. (Groan)

    The stirring Xmas carol, “HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING”, immediately comes to mind…. although “harken to” would sound odd in this instance, at least to this modern era ear.

    Now, no doubt those three Maji preferred “hark”… in old Aramaic, of course. (Well technically, for the record, the alleged Nubian wiseman likely spoke Nubian, back in the day, w/ Aramaic as a second language.)

  13. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan;
    I poured another mug of coffee as I pored over your post; it was the right subject. It was pouring out.

  14. Shaun Downey says:

    And J K will pore over the comments puring scorn over those which are negative?

  15. Shaun Downey says:

    Err I meant pouring!

  16. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Shaun Downey,

    Respectfully, I find it curious that when we try to come off as a little droll, or cute w/ what we deem as a clever rejoinder, ofttimes we commit a spelling boo-boo; and on discovering our error, then sheepishly feel obliged to return to quickly mend the faux pas.

    I’m hardly centering you out here, Shaun, since I, and countless other bloggers I’m sure, have committed the aforementioned trying-to-be-funny minor blunder, many times.

    My take on this anecdotal phenomenon perhaps has something to do w/ our natural eagerness to share our clever little ditty, and in our zeal to get it out there, and garner a response, we somehow let our guard down a tad, allowing minor spelling flubs to unwittingly creep into the picture. (The mind working ahead of the typing digits, in other words.)

    I assure you Shaun, no real biggie.

    It happens to the best of us. HA!

  17. Stan says:

    Alex: “Wreck havoc” and similar mutant phrases can be interesting in how they point to semantic interference, as is the case with eggcorns.

    Adrian: It could be a combination of unfamiliarity with verbal pore and the vague sense of a pouring gaze. Was it Lakoff who wrote about metaphors for vision taking the form of beams of light from our eyes? Thanks for the additional mnemonics; I like your ore idea.

    Picky: Yes, I think hark back is older. Brewer’s has a brief note on it.

    Eugene: Frequency is an issue, yes, and prominent uncorrected errors such as the Irish Independent’s are likely to lead to more of the same. I’ve never seen poor confused with the other two, but I imagine it happens in informal writing.

    Diane: Oh, I do enjoy a good complication! And your examples show paw over to be most relevant. The usage is completely new to me, but I see how it might arise – perhaps especially, as Eugene suggests, in non-rhotic dialects.

    Marc: Thank you. I poured a mug of tea and pawed a biscuit as I read your comment, and felt far from poor with these thoughtful responses.

    Shaun: Puring is another one I didn’t even consider! Best left to its own domain, I figure.

  18. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    You must be familiar w/ that old adage, “From little ‘eggcorns’, big ‘jokes’ grow.” (Groan)

    Thanks for the “eggcorns” blog link.

    Very bemusing….. oops!….. I mean amusing material. Amazing that this site has been going strong since 2005, and still appears to be thriving.

    I guess there’s no limit to how discombobulated the Queen’s English can get, and to such ofttimes delightful jocular effect, to boot.

    Interestingly, eggcorns used to be the-stock-and-trade of many a Borscht Belt standup comic’s regular schtick back in the early days of live stage comedy. And likely vaudeville, and the Yiddish theater before that.

    Woody Allen, for one, was ( and presumably still is) a master of these oddball, ‘punny’ malpropisms*, cleverly crafted w/ intention, and hardly unwitting gaffes, yet delivered, on stage, as if he were a stumbling, bumbling imbecile.

    Now THAT’S comedy, my friends.

    *Groucho Marx, another maestro of the (intentional) eggcorn, likely strongly influenced Woody Allen in this regard, along w/ many other American Jewish comedy greats, such as Mel Brooks, Karl Reiner, and Sid Caesar, who often rely on crafty wordplay to entertain, and humor their audiences.

    Curiously, all the aforementioned comedians, save Groucho, (who passed several years back), are still kicking, well on in years, yet still working at what they do best— making folks laugh. Well, Sid Caesar may have officially retired, but the other three are still laying on the schtick pretty thick.

    I’ll have my eggcorns over easy, and easy on the shmalts, sweetheart.

  19. This one made me giggle, Stan. Liquid people flowing over things.

  20. Stan says:

    Alex: I had not heard that old adage: something tells me it’s rather more recent than that. :-)

    Ashley: It’s a funny image for me too (and might even work as a reverse mnemonic for people on the verge of using it).

  21. Gee, I had lost track of the pore/pour distinction. I’ll add it to my list of annoyances immediately!

  22. Stan says:

    theeditorandthebeast: Glad to be of service.

  23. […] talked go, and Stan Carey considered commas and at Sentence First taught us how to stop confusing pore and pour. Meanwhile, Motivated Grammar compared “than I” and than me” and the Grammar Monkeys told us […]

  24. […] a walk in Galway once I met a Polish couple poring over a map. We were going the same way, and fell into step. They were in town for an Esperanto […]

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