I recently got a listener question about “more than” and “over”:
”Hi, Mignon. My name is Andrea. About 20 years ago, my husband Brian and I were working as reporters at a local newspaper. For the style guide they were very specific when talking about an amount of money such as more than or less than $1 million. We were not allowed to use the words “over” or “under” because they signified a position, a physical position in space like over or under a bridge. Recently, I’ve noticed that a lot of news outlets and television shows are using the “over a million” and “under a million,” and I was just wondering if this was something specific to the newspaper we were working at or if it’s a change in style overall. Thanks, Mignon. Love the Podcast. Bye.”
You’re not imagining it, and news outlets haven’t gotten more sloppy. There was a change in Associated Press style.
If you’re the type of person who pays super close attention to the AP Stylebook updates every year, one of the most attention grabbing changes in 2014 was to the entry on “more than” and “over.” Before 2014, AP writers followed the style you learned at your local paper: never use “over” or “under” to talk about numbers. You were supposed to use “more than” or “less than.” But in 2014, the AP Stylebook changed to say you can write it either way—that both are acceptable in all uses to indicate a greater or lesser numerical value. Examples:
- Salaries went up more than $20 a week.
- Salaries went up over $20 a week.
- The stock fell to less than $40 per share.
- The stock fell to under $40 per share.
Both are fine now.
There was some mild rumbling, but the real ruckus happened on Twitter. Before the talk was even over, Matthew Crowley from the Las Vegas Review-Journal announced to the room that somebody had already tweeted “more than my dead body.” [Get it? That’s a joke because “more than” can’t be substituted for “over” in “over my dead body.”]
— Mike Shor (@MikeShor) March 20, 2014
Reading comments online, a widely expressed sentiment was that the AP was getting soft, giving up, and caving to the lowest common denominator, but it is not that simple.
— Stan (@StanFinger) March 20, 2014
A day or two after that session, I talked to people at the meeting who didn’t think the change was a big deal and who thought the stories that had come out about copy editors freaking out were overdone. People did seem to be freaking out online, but I didn’t witness a lot of freak-outs among the professional copy editors at the annual meeting.
Similarly, after the meeting, copyediting.com had an article calling the change a “nod to reality,” and pointing out that “In a handout for a recent ACES one-day editorial bootcamp, “more than” versus “over” appeared under the heading “Not Rules at All,” and the advice was to worry about it only if you’ve got nothing more pressing to worry about.” Mark Allen, who wrote the article and goes by @EditorMark on Twitter, tweeted “AP’s ‘over’ vs. ‘more than’ decision acknowledges what most of us were doing anyway.”
The history of the more-than-is-better-than-over rule is instructive.
No rationale exists for the ‘over can’t mean more than’ rule
The “rule” against using “over” in a sense such as “over 20 camels marched down the street” was popularized in the late 1800s by William Cullen Bryant, an influential New York Evening Post editor. He wrote a list of words to be avoided that he called the “Index Expurgatorius.” The first entry on the list reads simply:
Above and over, for “more than.”
Other words on the list that he didn’t like included “jeopardize,” “located,” “talented,” “pants” for “pantaloons,” and “retire” as an active verb. (I adore these kinds of lists from old style guides. They’re always fascinating. For example, I was surprised to see that Bryant also objected to the phrase “on yesterday.” I hear complaints about that today, and I had thought it was a relatively new regionalism—but nope, apparently it was annoying people all the way back in the 1800s.)
Bryant gave no rationale for his dictum. Apparently, he just didn’t like “above” and “over” for “more than,” but his preference propagated throughout newspaper style guides and became what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage calls “a hoary American newspaper tradition.” (“Hoary” originally meant “gray or white with age,” and can also now mean “tiresome or stale.”)
Bryant is often cited as the originator of the rule, but Jan Freeman pointed out on Twitter that there is an earlier source. Walton Burgess wrote a book in 1856 called Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence in Speaking, Pronouncing, and Writing the English Language. Mistake #130 in his book reads, “There were not over twenty persons present :” say, ‘more than.’ Such a use of this word is not frequent among writers of reputation. It may, however, be less improperly employed, where the sense invests it with more of a semblance to its literal signification: as, ‘This pair of chickens will weigh over seven pounds.’ Even in this case, it is better to say ‘more than.’” It seems he needs to make up his mind. It’s OK, but then it’s not OK. I don’t know whether Bryant got the rule from Burgess, but either way, there’s still no rationale. It’s a rule one or two guys made up.
— Jan Freeman (@Jan__Freeman) March 25, 2014
‘Over’ to mean ‘more than’ is already widely accepted
Even before the AP Stylebook change, nearly all modern style guides had come out strongly against the “rule.” Bryan Garner called it a “baseless crotchet” and the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style said it may be “safely ignored.” After the announcement, Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A section, reminded people that this has been Chicago’s style for years. Even the previous editions of the AP Stylebook had taken a softened stance on “over,” saying that “more than” is “preferred with numerals,” but not going so far as to say that “over” is wrong. The oldest edition I have is from 1998, and even going back that far, it says “more than” is preferred, not that it’s required, which surprised me. Like Andrea who asked the question today, when I worked at college newspapers years ago, I had absorbed the idea that it was a hard-and-fast rule that you shouldn’t use “over” and “under” with numbers, not that it was just less preferable.
That’s why it’s always a good idea to look things up. Your memories can be wrong.
AP accepts “over” for “more than”? About time (CMOS 5.220)! #ACES2014
— SubversiveCopyEditor (@SubvCopyEd) March 20, 2014
I asked Minthorn and Christian why they made the change, and they said, “Because it makes sense.” They noted the overwhelming common usage and said, “We were swimming against the tide to go the other way. There’s no logical, grammatical reason for not using ‘over’ with numbers. There are contexts where ‘more than’ might work better, but ‘over’ is appropriate in the overwhelming majority of cases.”
‘Under’ can also mean ‘less than’
As a side note, Bill Walsh, author of Yes, I Could Care Less and a long-time copy editor at the Washington Post, asked at the ACES conference if the change meant the AP would also accept “under” to mean “less than,” and the editors said they would.
To sum up, Andrea and her husband are noticing a real change. It wasn’t just the newspaper they worked for that followed the old recommendations, it was all journalists who followed AP style. But now the AP Stylebook is the same as most of the other major style books. It’s now fine for AP writers to write the either “more than 50 people attended the rally” or “over 50 people attended the rally,” just as it’s been fine for other writers to do all along. You don’t have to use “over” if you don’t like how it sounds, but it’s no longer considered less acceptable than “more than” by the Associated Press. And the same goes for “under” and “less than.”