A style book joke
A reader recently pointed me to his favorite "common
spelling error", which he found in a piece by Roy Blount Jr. ("Is the
Pope Capitalized?", in his 1982 collection One Fell Soup
, p. 84), who got it
from Bobby Ray Miller's United Press
(1977, p. 29):
burrow A burro
is an ass. A burrow is
a hole in the ground. As a journalist you are expected to know
Blount, reviewing four style guides for journalists, commented, "The
UPI book has the best joke."
There might be some previous history for the joke; I'm not especially
interested in tracing quotations back in time, so 1977 is good enough
The entry surely gets into style guides just for its value as humor: burro
are on many lists of
homophones, but not on lists of commonly confused words.
The latest UPI guide (Bruce Cook & Harold Martin, UPI Stylebook and Guide to Newswriting
4th ed., 2004) has a burro
) entry (p. 37), but it has only
the first two sentences and is missing the zinger "know the difference"
Plenty of quotations in the years since 1977, plus some paraphrases, as
in this entry from the "Condensed
... burro, burrow One's an ass,
the other's a hole in the ground and reporters ought to know the
and some embroidery, as in this 2001 piece
by John Irvine Ades:
I was not, myself, in the habit of
entering the margins of my students papers to make droll comments on
their foibles. But I cannot forbear reporting a choice temptation that
one of my teachers was led into (despite Matt. 6.13). A student had
been asked to write an essay on the subject of what he had done during
the summer vacation. This young dude had been to the Grand Canyon,
where, he wrote, he had gone down into the Canyon on a burrow.
Seeing the supererogatory w, the professor at first steeled himself;
but then, seeing an opportunity that might knock but once in a
lifetime, he wrote in the margin a slang saying, the gist of which may
be more discreetly conveyed by the saucy entry for burro, burrow in The
UPI Stylebook: A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As
a journalist you are expected to know the difference.. . . You know, to
be honest I don't think I could have resisted, either.
and, finally, versions transported to other contexts, like this one
from James Landau on ADS-L, 12/28/02:
An Annapolis midshipman once wrote
"Sancho Panza, sitting on his burrow..." The instructor wrote back "a
burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a
future Naval officer, you are expected to know the difference."
and this one from the American
Language Review in 1998
Decades ago, Carl Cochran, retired
Professor of English at Colby Sawyer College in New Hampshire, taught
at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. He received a composition in which
one of his students described his summer adventures in Venezuela, where
he had worked for Gulf Oil Company. One error kept appearing throughout
the paper. The student consistently misspelled the word burro as burrow.
At the end of the essay, Professor Cochran wrote: "My dear sir: It is
apparent to me from your spelling that you do not know your ass from a
hole in the ground."
It looks like all the fabled student spelling errors have burrow
, which is what you'd expect:
the more common word for the less common.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 19, 2007 08:38 PM