Editors from the Associated Press just announced that the AP Stylebook is changing its stance on using over to mean more than. Plenty of people are shocked. Find out why they shouldn't be.
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Salaries went up over $20 a week.
Those of you who weren’t taught AP style are probably wondering what the big deal is, but some of you who were taught AP style are probably more disconcerted.
There was some mild rumbling, but the real ruckus seemed to erupt on Twitter. Before the talk was even over, Matthew Crowley from the Las Vegas Review-Journal announced to the room that someone had already tweeted “more than my dead body.” [Get it? It’s a joke because more than can’t be substituted for over.]
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.
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. As I said, 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, a few days ago, 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 vs. over appears under the heading Not Rules at All, and the advice is 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.” Note that these are professional copy editors, not random people mumbling on the street.
The history of the “more than is better than over” rule is instructive. In fact, two years ago when my last book came out, 101 Troublesome Words, I said that more than and over were interchangeable when used as a preposition before a number—unless you followed AP style.
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 include 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 objected to the phrase on yesterday. I hear complaints about that today, and I had thought that 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 the 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.
Daniel 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 even 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.
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 calls it a “baseless crotchet” and the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says 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 edition 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.
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.”