Yoga and Grammar: The virtues of flexibility are many, but being flexible about which word to use is not one of them. As I was poring over Claire Dederer's Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, the benefits, and limits, of flexibility came to mind.
Claire Dederer's Poser is first of all a memoir, and then a yoga book. It's a memoir about trying to do it right.
Dederer writes a memoir of young motherhood and her own quest for perfection, for happiness, for balance, for goodness. A gifted and successful writer, and a mother and wife in the upper middle-class Seattle area, she begins raising her daughter in a hyper-conscious Park Slope-like world of attachment parents, thoughtful consumption, and deep anxiety.
Desperately trying to be good, to do it the right way, she travels from experience to experience, to yoga and away from it, all with grace and wit. She moves from pose to pose, going ever deeper. She's the kind of girl who pores over books. And she pours herself out here, elegantly, skilfully, beautifully.
That difference between "pore" and "pour" struck me recently, when a blog reader wrote to me last week:
"I skim the political blogs but PORE over yours. (Or is that "pour"? What the h*** do pores have to do with it? BLOG POST!) These are the truly pressing issues of life."
How we all try to be good! To use the right word, not to make a mistake. As long-time readers of this blog know, I am no prescriptivist grammarian. I recognize that different contexts require different registers of speech, and that the grammar that describes how we use language is not the grammar of "should"s.
And yet that the grammar of "should"s should not be tossed out like the bath water, either.
Homophones, or words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things (also called heterographs*), are not caught by spell check. "Pour" and "pore" are both spelled correctly, but one means to move liquid, assisted by gravity, and the other (as noun) refers to a natural opening in the skin, and (as verb) refers to examining closely.
Certainly, adolescents are prone to pore over their pores, for example. Interestingly, the two senses of the words stem from different roots - they are not related. There's a little interactive quiz here to check your usage, if you care to. Then you'll use them perfectly!
The quest for perfectionism in grammar can lead to pain, poor writing, anger, and pedantry. The lack of precision in word use can lead to confusion, poor writing, and ridicule. To avoid either extreme, take the middle path, the middle way that Claire Dederer found in yoga, and in life. Find out what different words mean, and use them well. Curiosity, not punishment, is the best prescription for grammar.
*Should you like knowing such things as homophone vs heterograph vs homonym, you probably like Venn diagrams. Please enjoy this illuminating Wikipedia Venn diagram, then.)
What do you pore over? Where do you seek perfection?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.