Etymology Usage

Over and over again

Q: I’m a copy editor who’s often wondered why the style guide where I work considers it a cardinal sin to use “over” in place of “more than.” The rationale is that “over” can only convey position. But it seems to me that its use to mean “more than” is pretty darned ingrained, and certainly sounds right to my ear. Am I nothing more than a victim of new-fangled language or is there some overarching history to be had?

A: No, you’re not a victim of new-fangled language. And, yes, you’ve got history on your side. This is something we’ve written about before.

As we said in a blog entry in 2007, “over” and “more than” have been used interchangeably for six centuries or more, and there’s no reason to think this is wrong.

But we didn’t say much in that post about the origin of the belief that “over” shouldn’t be used to mean “more than.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which has an excellent entry on the subject, says, “Disapproval of over meaning ‘more than’ is a hoary American newspaper tradition.”

The objection, according to M-W, began with William Cullen Bryant’s book Index Expurgatorius (1877).

It was picked up in Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right (1909), the usage guide says, and from there “passed into almost all of the newspaper handbooks.”

What was Bryant’s beef with using “over” to mean “more than”? He never said, according to the M-W editors.

We checked Bierce’s book, and he never explained it, either.

You’re right, however, that many editors believe “over” should refer only to position, but that belief is waning.

We have an old Associated Press stylebook that insists “over” refers to “spatial relationships” and “is not interchangeable with more than.” But the latest AP stylebook doesn’t include this bugaboo.

Here’s what the editors at the Merriam-Webster’s usage guide conclude: “There is no reason why you need to avoid this usage.” We agree.

[Update, March 24, 2014: The Associated Press has officially changed its policy. Last week, the editors of the AP Stylebook announced at a session of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) Conference that in reference to a quantity, “over” may now be used. “We decided on the change because it has become common usage,” said Darrell Christian, the editor of the AP Stylebook. “We’re not dictating that people use ‘over’—only that they may use it as well as ‘more than’ to indicate greater numerical value.”]


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