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"Over" Reaction: Copy Editors Gasp at AP Ruling on "Over"/"More Than"

From the annual meeting of the American Copy Editors Society in Las Vegas comes some earth-shaking news: the folks who edit the Associated Press Stylebook have loosened the distinction between "over" and "more than." The stylebook editors announced that they are now fine with "over" being used with numbers. Many of those in attendance were aghast, while others hailed the change as long overdue.

From Nick Jungman:

The big news of the ACES 2014 conference so far: The Associated Press just announced that its stylebook no longer prohibits the use of "over" in the sense of "more than" (e.g., "That price is $6 over my budget.").

Why were copy editors gasping? The AP Stylebook is the default rulebook for many copy editors in the news industry — and, by extension, some editors in public relations and marketing. And this is a liberalization of those rules, which tend to be (in my opinion) needlessly prescriptive. Those gasping editors were either shocked that AP would endorse such a sensible reform or appalled that AP has given up this hallowed ground.

But what difference does it really make? Not much. If you're a fan of saying "more than" with numerals rather than "over," keep doing it. It's not wrong, and the change to AP's style concedes that. If you want to insist that your publication never use "over" with a numeral, make an in-house style rule. A lot of copy editors forget they can do that. Instead, they regard the AP Stylebook as a sort of sacred bible that must be followed, and I think that's ceding a lot of power to an institution whose priorities aren't necessarily the same as their publications'.

From Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic:

Here it is, the tweet that ended decades of global grammatical stability and secure stylistic norms:

In the new version of its venerated Stylebook, used by hundreds of news organizations across the country, the Associated Press will allow "over" as a synonym for "more than."

In other words, it will now be acceptable to say—

There were over 78 crocodiles at the metallurgist's convention.

Where it was previously only acceptable to say—

There were more than 78 crocodiles at the metallurgist's convention.

According to Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, there were audible gasps when the change was announced. And for good reason: The insistence that over is not synonymous with more than is drilled into the eager skulls of first-year journalism students everywhere. Over, not more than, for many years, was stylistic conservatism that could be lorded over the uninitiated.

Now, the hegemony of "more than" is no more.

Sokolowski writes that the AP made the choice—or, perhaps more appropriately, the concession—because it decided it could no longer stand athwart history, shouting 'More than!' Everyday style simply uses the two words interchangeably, and the AP will now reflect the change.

For more online reaction, see Poynter's roundup, "'More than my dead body!' Journalists react to AP's over/more than change." And to read about the history of the stylistic distinction (which dates back to 1877), check out this Grammar Girl podcast.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 21st 2014, 2:07 AM
Comment by: julie B. (Austin, TX)
Utter heresy! Thank goodness for blogging - where thoughts roam freely.
Friday March 21st 2014, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Pamela L.
Much more than a little ado over two or three little words...
Friday March 21st 2014, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Matt H.
Anyone else find it mildly humorous the copy writers over the top reactions were all expressed with fragmented Tweets?
Friday March 21st 2014, 3:29 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
This is just another "simplification" of our language--"over-simplification?". It seems to me (and my ear) that use of ''over"
usually applies to situations in which the referent is an indiscreet quantity that is not qualified by a number. So to use the example that "the price is $6 over my budget," sounds correct to me. Here the referent is the indiscreet quantity implied by the word "budget." If the budget is only $100, and the price is $106, then the price is $6 "more than the budget." ($100 is a discrete quantity.). This situation is similar to what I often hear spoken by television reporters. Reporters will use, for example, "the amount of people" attending an event, instead of "the number of people." Here the number of people is a discrete quantity, although unknown, that can be determined. However, "more people attended" this year sounds good to my ear, since the referent is simply an increased number attending. The number apples in the barrel is more than the number in my bag, sounds better than the amount of apples in the barrel is more than number in my bag. This does get to be a case of splitting hairs, but eventually the ears of those who lose the ability to detect the splitting will no longer care and one term term or the other may vanish from our lexicon. John E., Mechanicsburg, Pa
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Sunday March 23rd 2014, 2:46 PM
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