Here’s an example of a rule that my dreaded 4th grade teacher, Mrs. A, would have loved to enforce: The more than vs. over distinction.
As I noted in my last post, Mrs. A was a rigid, punitive authority figure with a black-and-white view of education. There was no room for compromise or wondering what the rationale was behind rules. There was simply the right way and the wrong way.
For more than a century, journalists learned that there was a right way and wrong way to refer to numerical excess. By edict that dates back to an 1877 guide created by a New York Evening Post editor, you were to write more than and not over.
- More than 53 percent of the voters in exit polling said Candidate A was not trustworthy due to his professed love for the band Nickelback.
- A crowd of more than 10,000 paid good money to attend the Nickelback concert.
- It’s been more than a year, thankfully, since Nickelback released an album.
There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for the distinction. When I was a young reporter hearing about the rule, an editor said that over could cause the reader to think literally about something hovering above whatever you were describing. And I suppose you could assume, reading the beginning of the first example, that some object was flying above the heads of 53 percent of the voters. But that’s a bit far-fetched.
Still, generations of American journalists (not their English equivalents, however) dutifully upheld the more than/over distinction until 2014. That’s when the Associated Press style guide said, “Never mind.”
That caused an uproar among editors across the country. Many wanted to stick with the old way. But as far as I can tell, they didn’t have a great explanation for why they were so enamored of more than. I think that they’re channeling the dogmatic ghost of Mrs. A: “This is the right way of doing things because I say so.”
There are sentences in which more than sounds better than over. Even before switching the rule, AP said that writers should let their ear be their guide. (I wrote about ears vs. grammar earlier.)
“Over can, at times, be used with numerals: ‘She is over 30. I paid over $200 for this suit.’ But more than may be better. ‘Their salaries went up more than $20 a week.’”
One big advantage of over: It’s four characters, while more than is nine, including the space between the words. That’s a definite advantage in the era of Twitter. Funny thing is, it was a big advantage in writing headlines for the past 100-plus years, too.
The AP decision to abandon the distinction apparently was a concession that people weren’t following it, so it wasn’t worth trying to enforce it. “We were swimming against the tide,” one of those responsible for the switch has said.
My take: There’s no point in bucking the trend if the rule you’re trying to protect doesn’t have a good rationale to begin with. If it does, take a stand and hope you might eventually prevail.
Have any rules you think no longer make sense? Let me know firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you need any help with writing, I can help with that, too.