Like witnessing the demolition of a derelict building, there’s something splendid about seeing a false language idol topple. And topple it did when the Associated Press Stylebook announced in March that it’s now okay to use “over” interchangeably with “more than” in combination with a number. Previously, AP style had considered “more than 500 people” correct and “over 500 people” wrong.
The change sparked an outcry among U.S. editors, laced the Twitter feed during the American Copy Editors Society conference in Las Vegas, and even made CBC’s As It Happens here in Canada. The style guide had caved, was the charge. “The insistence that over is not synonymous with more than is drilled into the eager skulls of first-year journalism students everywhere,” lamented Robinson Meyer at the Atlantic—taking, as we shall see, an oddly restricted view of “everywhere.”
If your response to the hullabaloo is “Huh?”—well, that’s pretty much the point.
I’d been editing and teaching for a decade before the “over/more than” issue pinged on my radar. An editor in one of my usage workshops asked if it was a distinction we should make. After wrestling down my astonishment, because the distinction was news to me, as well as guilt, because I must have been listening to Radiohead or camping in the wilds when this usage lesson made the rounds, I did what every instructor will do in such a situation: gulped, said I didn’t know, and embarked on some furious research.
What I found was reassuring and also intriguing. I hadn’t heard of, let alone adhered to, the “over/more than” rule because (1) I’m Canadian and (2) it’s a spurious rule. But don’t take my word for it.
R.W. Burchfield, editor of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd. ed.), writes that the prohibition against “over” with a numeral arose in the late 19th century, mainly in American newspapers. Burchfield mildly adds that in British English (and he might have added Canadian), “over” is used with numerals “without restriction or adverse comment . . .”
Sure, you might say, but he’s British. How about Bryan Garner? In his Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), he first notes that “over” and “more than” have been used interchangeably with numbers for over 600 years, then dismisses the distinction as a “baseless crochet.” Then there’s Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, also American, who lays out the history of the idiosyncratic preference and reports on how editors received the change at the Las Vegas conference.
The AP Stylebook change is not, as some have railed, another concession to the permissive masses. It’s a belated jettisoning of a usage point that’s at odds with grammar, logic, and the rest of the English-speaking world.
Now, if we all heave together, can we overturn Strunk and White’s myth that it’s wrong to start a sentence with the conjunction “however”?