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“Am I being an old fart?”

Q: I write and edit a weekly newsletter and people come to me with grammar concerns, but I sometimes have questions of my own and nowhere to turn. One thing that comes up a lot is the use of “over” vs. “more than.” I had learned to use “more than” if you’re talking about numbers: “There were more than 50 people at the party.” But everyone else seems to say, “There were over 50 people at the party.” Is this a case where the language has evolved? Am I being an old fart?

A: Many people who consider themselves sticklers insist that “over” shouldn’t be used for “more than” in a sentence like this: “I’ve seen more than a dozen Bergman films.” These fusspots believe “over” should refer to a higher physical location (“the Goodyear blimp flew over the ballpark”), not to a higher number.

But “over” and “more than” have been used interchangeably for six centuries or more, Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern American Usage. He says “the charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for “over” with numbers or quantities since Anglo-Saxon days. Here’s an example of “over” with a number in Jane Austen’s novel Emma: “It had not been over five minutes, when in came Harriet.”

Theodore M. Bernstein, in Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, says the “superstition” apparently originated with Ambrose Bierce, who didn’t give any reason for objecting to the use of “over” with numbers.

I also discuss this widespread misconception in “The Living Dead,” the chapter on grammar myths in my book Woe Is I.

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