It was the Tweet that launched 1,000 groans from copy editors: The Associated Press Stylebook's longtime snubbing of "over" is over.
"New to the stylebook: over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value," the AP style authorities tweeted recently, revoking a rule that for decades had proven highly effective at enabling people who knew the rule to feel superior to people who didn't.
The uproar, in some circles at least, was ear-splitting. This is a horrible change because the result will be ... it will be ... Well, no one could finish that thought. But that didn't humble the protesters into silence. They just reached for the reliable old "dumbing-down" argument instead:
This rule change is yet another example of dummies dragging the language into the gutter, they argued. A once perfect, once irrefutable truth is true no more, thanks to all the horrible people in the world known as noneditors who just won't stop using the word "over" wrong.
But are they wrong? Or can you use "over" to mean "more than?"
Before we get to that, some background. The Associated Press Stylebook, which many news outlets use as an editing rule book, has long contained the instructions regarding the word "over," saying that it "generally refers to spatial relationships. 'The plane flew over the city.' 'More than' is preferred with numerals. 'Salaries went up more than $20 a week.'"
In most cases, this works out great. Precise words and terms are better than less-precise ones. "Alcoholics" is a better word than "people" for talking about, you know, alcoholics. "Fully automatic machine gun" is better than "item" when talking about, you know, a fully automatic machine gun. And so on.
If the word "over" can mean either physically above or greater in quantity, it's ambiguous in some cases. So why not use "more than" and eliminate all potential for confusion? I like that approach, and AP's example drives it home: To suggest that salaries "went up over" something would be downright disorienting. There's no question that, in AP's example sentence and many others, "more than" is preferable to "over."
But in language, there's a big difference between good advice and rules — the main difference being that rigid rules let pedantic editors play "Where's Waldo?" with the word "over" when they should be paying attention to more important problems in articles they're editing — problems like subject-verb agreement and whether the writer has done an adequate job of explaining things.
Do the rules allow "over" to be used as a synonym for "more than"? Yup, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Webster's New World and American Heritage agree.
Are these dictionaries simply caving in to a dumbing down of the word? Nope. My 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary says pretty much the same thing. As will just about any other authority you can find going all the way back to the 15th century.
It has never been wrong to use "over" to mean "more than." Instead, Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage explains, this idea is just "is a hoary old newspaper tradition."
In a long, unwieldy sentence, "over" can do the job better than "more than" or its cousins "older than," "bigger than," "taller than" and so on. A good editor can decide that for himself. That's his job: to ensure every word in a written work is well-chosen.
So any editor who would prefer to robotically enforce rules than use his own judgment seems a little misguided to me. And those who think it's terrible that AP changed its rule should just get over it.
--JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.