Arguing over “over”

I’ve been ignoring the American civil war, even though it broke out just down the corridor from where I was sitting two weeks ago.

In short: the AP Stylebook announced a change to its guidance: “over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value”. So AP now approves of statements such as “I slept for over an hour” and will no longer insist on “I slept for more than an hour”.

According to Peter Sokolowski, who was in that very room, AP cited “overwhelming evidence” that this usage was common and commonly accepted, and said that it was “futile to fight the tide”.

War then broke out.

Apparently, this is a big thing among US logophiles. Lots of people immediately jumped up (literally and virtually) to cheer or damn the decision. Peter has more detail.

I, like my country as a whole, have always been indifferent to this “rule”. But I saw an article denouncing AP’s change and I want to respond to the sheer paucity of its arguments. It’s by Megan Hess at Mashable:

AP editors said “overwhelming usage” of both terms prompted the change. By that reasoning, why not dump the entire AP Stylebook in the garbage? There are plenty of style rules that get overlooked (I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen “which” instead of “that”), but that doesn’t mean we should completely disregard them.

“Which”/“that” strikes a chord with me. I gave up my belief that restrictive clauses must take “that” a couple of years ago. (This, too, is less of an issue in the UK, but I fought that fight for a few years.) I still mostly favour “that” in my own writing, but only on personal aesthetic grounds. What’s changed is that I no longer sit at work automatically changing “which” to “that” all over the place.

A style guide is for the benefit of the reader. It may also benefit the writer and the editor, but that’s secondary. If a rule conflicts with what the reader wants and expects, it should be reconsidered because it’s likely to make communication less effective. So, with “which”/“that”, with “over”/“more than”, with all sorts of debatable “rules”, my view is this:

If you have good reason to think that a significant number of your readers care about a certain point of usage and that the value of pleasing them outweighs the risk of vexing other readers who might care differently plus the cost in time of making the needed changes, then go ahead and stick to that rule. Otherwise, do what you like.

Hess continues:

At the risk of sounding snobbish, the distinction is one that distinguishes clean, precise language and attention to detail — and serves as a hallmark of a proper journalism training. It denotes a common ground for people who care about the rules…

There are three points here. One is about aesthetics – “clean” – and is subjective. The second is about clarity – “precise”. “Over” has several uses, so in theory ambiguity might arise. “I ran over ten dogs.” Did I race more than ten or crush exactly ten with my car?

But what about this: “Nancy Pelosi got behind Barack Obama.” Am I talking location or support? This sentence is ambiguous in isolation, although in context it probably wouldn’t be. In any case, this would be no reason to ban the supportive sense of “behind”. Many words have multiple meanings, so we have to be alert for ambiguity and rephrase where needed. Blanket bans on well-established usages are a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The third point is if not snobbish then circular. We should follow the rule because then people who follow the rule will see that we’re following the rule, and they’ll know that we’re the kind of people who follow the rule, which is the best kind of people to be. No: we’re in shibboleth territory here. If the rule has merit, this point is needless; if not, the point is worthless.

Also, note that plural “s” at the end of the quote from Hess, as if there were an uncontroversially well-defined set of rules and either you accept them en bloc or you’re a barbarian.

She goes on, disagreeing with her colleague Alex Hazlett:

Alex argues that the difference is an arbitrary one. By the same token, can’t you argue that “effect” versus “affect” was just an arbitrary letter choice? Over time, however, that difference has accrued meaning to the masses; we shouldn’t disregard a century of meaning without a second thought. The same holds true for “more than” versus “over.”

These are empirical questions: how many of the masses distinguish “effect” and “affect” in the recommended way? Enough to make sticking to that rule an important part of communicating effectively? I have no data, but I’m pretty confident the answer is yes. And how many reject AP’s newly approved “over”? Again, I can only guess, but I suspect not nearly as many. I of course have a British perspective, although I also have some reputable US sources. Hess mentions one:

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary lists several uses of “over,” one of which includes “beyond some quantity, limit, or norm often by a specified amount or to a specified degree,” with the example phrase “the show ran a minute over.” None of the example sentences use it in the stead of “more than,” which is telling.

It’s telling only of poor research. Merriam-Webster’s entry for “over” as a preposition, definition 3a, is “more than”. The example given is “cost over $5”.

And the American Heritage Dictionary’s entry, definition 9, is “More than in degree, quantity, or extent: over ten miles; over a thousand dollars”. There’s also a note explaining that while this usage goes back to the 14th century, the controversy was invented only in the 19th. It concludes: “In our 2009 survey, 86 percent of the Usage Panel accepted over with the meaning ‘more than.’ This usage is fully standard.”

Hess’s final argument is tongue-in-cheek:

Fowler’s Modern English Usage notes that in Britain, “over” has equal status as “more than.” Do we really want to abide by the same stylistic norms as a culture that uses colour? I think not.

Fine. To add to the US authorities of Merriam-Webster, Heritage and of course AP itself, I offer Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009):

In one of its uses, the prepositional over is interchangeable with more than <over 600 people were there>… The charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet.

If you still want to stick to “more than”, I have nothing against you. As I said, I still stick to restrictive “that” even though I now think the rule about it is baseless nonsense. I stick to it because I think it sounds better, sharper, neater. But, I wonder, how much has my taste been shaped by the rule I had internalised? Conversely, how much of my judgement that most readers (in Britain, at least) don’t care about the rule has been shaped by my own not caring about the rule?

One of the hardest parts of being a copy editor is telling which of your own judgements flow from expertise and experience and which from prejudice and habit. As John McIntyre recommends: “Listen carefully to knowledgeable people who disagree with you.”

Update: Speaking of John, he has also blogged about this. A couple of money quotes:

Anyone who gets a degree in the sciences or technical fields expects that new information will change what one was originally taught, especially as empirical evidence is developed. But, as we will see, empirical evidence cuts no ice with such people on points of English usage.

The century and a half in which this imagined distinction has been taught in newsrooms and journalism classrooms hasn’t made much of a dent with the masses. Neither should it.

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  • christineplouvier  On April 5, 2014 at 11:57 am

    As a U. S. writer who spends a lot of time paddling in the Commonwealth English pool, I’m a Luddite who prefers “more than,” and I use “that” much more often than “which” (but only on the basis of what “sounds right”). I may not know Art, but I know what I like.

  • Richard Nield  On April 5, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Tom you make some good points here as always, particularly on the difficulty of determining to what extent a preference for one thing or another is expertise and to what extent bias. For me, the over/more than conundrum is a case in point. the first

    • Richard Nield  On April 5, 2014 at 1:04 pm

      magazine i worked for accepted more than but not over. Since i left i’ve discovered that i prefer it: to me, more than is simply better at describing what i’m trying to say than over. Hard to know how far this is just because it was drummed into me, to the point where i consciously self-edit. Unlike Hess, while i prefer more than and cant help wincing when i read over, i’ve managed to control the temptation to believe that over is any less valid, and to be tolerant of the fact that clearly it is common usage and as such no less understandable

  • le cul en rows  On April 5, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Reblogged this on Le cul entre les deux chaises and commented:
    This is related to my post for this coming Tuesday, but it’s a good read on its own (if you’re into this kind of thing). A sample: “If you have good reason to think that a significant number of your readers care about a certain point of usage and that the value of pleasing them outweighs the risk of vexing other readers who might care differently plus the cost in time of making the needed changes, then go ahead and stick to that rule. Otherwise, do what you like.”

  • wscottling  On April 6, 2014 at 12:15 am

    Reblogged this on Willow's Corner and commented:
    Language can be a very touchy subject. But it changes, people, it changes. This is an excellent blog about the recent AP ruling concerning “over” and “more than”.



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