The Grammarphobia Blog

Pour English

Q: Are there too few English majors nowadays? A recent headline on CNN.com: “Volunteers pour over satellite images.” Hmm. I prefer maple syrup on my satellite images. What about you?

A: It shouldn’t take an English major to tell the difference between “pour” and “pore.” Yet many people, even in news organizations, write “pour over” when they mean “pore over.”

The verb “pour” means flow or cause to flow, as when a river “pours” over its banks, troops “pour” over a border, or you “pour” maple syrup over your waffles.

The other verb, “pore,” means to examine or study closely.

As Pat writes in Woe is I, “You pore over an engrossing book, but it’s gross to pour over one.” She uses this example: “While Charlotte pored over a steamy novel, the bathtub poured over.”

CNN wasn’t the only news organization to use “pour over” instead of “pore over” in reference to volunteer efforts in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. This passage is from the Telegraph of Calcutta:

“The approach is a kind of crowdsourcing, but not one in which volunteers pour over satellite images, like they have in search of Flight 370.”

The verbs “pour” and “pore” have been part of English since the Middle Ages, but they’re unrelated and probably come from different sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says “pour,” first recorded around 1330, is of uncertain origin but perhaps is derived from the Middle French verb purer, which meant “to decant, pour out (a liquid).”

Over the centuries, “pour” has been widely used in transferred or figurative senses.

This OED citation from a 1995 issue of the British magazine Sugar is a good illustration: “If you want to cause a stir on the beach just pour yourself into a gorgeous swimsuit.”

In fact, “pour” has so many figurative uses that it’s hard to count them.

Today people “pour out their hearts,” “pour money” into causes, “pour into” hot vacation spots, and “pour themselves” into their jobs. And when lavishly praising or criticizing, they “pour it on” (a usage the OED dates from the late 1940s).

But the uses of the other verb, “pore,” are much more limited. It still means roughly what it did when first recorded around 1300, the OED says: “to look intently or fixedly, to gaze.”

“Pore” is of unknown origin, the dictionary says, but may be related to a now obsolete Middle English verb, “pire,” meaning to peer or look closely.

This long-dead verb, “pire,” bears some similarity to a regional usage in Low German, piren, meaning “to search closely, to collect carefully,” the OED says. But we’re getting into speculation here, and there’s no definite connection to the modern “pore.”

The most common use of “pore” today is one that developed in the late 1300s. The OED defines this sense as “to examine a book, map, etc., with fixed attention; to study or read earnestly or with intense concentration; to be absorbed in reading or study.”

In this sense, “pore” is frequently used with prepositions, especially “over” the OED says. And only occasionally do we find “pore” used in any other sense.

The OED says it’s sometimes used when we speak of meditating or thinking intently, as in this 1982 example from the Financial Times: “The Treasury clearly does not spend all its time poring over macro-economic issues.”

Generally, “pore” is used literally in its original sense, as Gretel Ehrlich did in her essay collection Islands, the Universe, Home (1991): “We pore over maps, chart our expeditions.”

In summary, volunteers definitely wouldn’t want to “pour over” those satellite pictures—especially if they were pouring something sticky. They’d want to “pore over” the images.

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