The White House releases a bunch of sensitive documents on a Friday afternoon, and the investigative reporter resigns herself to spending the weekend examining them closely. Luckily, the forecast calls for torrential rain, so she’s not worried about missing anything outside.
But when she writes that she “spent the weekend pouring over the documents,” many will get the sense that she was reading the documents outside in the rain.
She wasn’t “pouring” over the documents; she was “poring” over them.
“To pour,” of course means, “to cause a liquid to flow.” “To pore” means “to study intently,” but a lot of people apparently haven’t done their homework on the distinction. “Hit the jump to pour over the press release,” one journalist wrote, raising the image of someone going all liquid over the press release. Sorry, but few press releases are that well-written—or that poorly written, for that matter.
It’s an easy mistake to make: One “pours” a sauce over something to completely cover it; someone who is “poring” over documents is covering the documents with intense study. And “pore” as a verb is pretty uncommon, used almost exclusively with “over” following it.
But the words probably have no common ancestors. While the Oxford English Dictionary says that the origins of both are unclear, we know that “pour” comes from words dealing with liquids, while “pore” as a verb comes from words related to close examination. “Pore” as a verb also has almost no relationship with “pore” as a noun, but because the noun means a tiny opening in a plant or animal through which liquid might be exchanged, that probably just adds to the confusion.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traces the first misuse to around 1957. It says “it seems to be growing more common in less attentively edited publications,” a belief echoed by Garner’s Modern American Usage, which says, “This blunder occurs in writing not pored over carefully enough by a good proofreader.” (Emphasis added.)
Though anecdotal evidence indicates that the misuse is “pouring” all over the place, it’s unlikely to be accepted as standard English anytime soon. Garner lists “pour” for “pore” as a two on his Language-Change index: “Widely shunned.”
So if you’re perspiring profusely at what you’re so intently reading, let the sweat “pour” from your brow as you “pore over” the material.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.