June 19, 2007

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 International Stylebook (1977, p. 29):

burro, burrow  A burro is an ass.  A burrow is a hole in the ground.  As a journalist you are expected to know the difference.

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 for me.

The entry surely gets into style guides just for its value as humor: burro and burrow 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(w) entry (p. 37), but it has only the first two sentences and is missing the zinger "know the difference" sentence.

Plenty of quotations in the years since 1977, plus some paraphrases, as in this entry from the "Condensed Stylebook":

... burro, burrow  One's an ass, the other's a hole in the ground and reporters ought to know the difference.

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 for burro, which is what you'd expect: the more common word for the less common.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 19, 2007 08:38 PM