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Official Language Change – Synonymizing “More Than” and “Over”

language changeBy Allison VanNest of Grammarly.com

During the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference in March of 2014, the Associated Press announced a change in one of the rules of the AP Stylebook by removing the distinction between “more than” and “over” (and, by extension, between “less than” and “under”) when referring to numerical quantity. The organization cited “overwhelming usage” in both professional and non-professional contexts as the primary reason.

According to the AP Stylebook, “more than” and “over” can now be used interchangeably to indicate greater numerical value, and “less than” and “under” can be used interchangeably to indicate lesser numerical value. Prior to the rule change, the only acceptable use of “over” was as a locative, a preposition designating the physical placement of one thing relative to another. For example, you could say that the Empire State Building towered over us or that your teacher hovered over your shoulder while you did your homework.

“More than,” on the other hand, was used to refer to countable items. For example, it would have been grammatically accurate to tell your friends that you ate more than 10 bananas in one day but grammatically inaccurate to say that you ate over 10 bananas in one day.

The rule originated in 1877 when William Cullen Bryant, an editor at the New York Evening Post, expressed distaste for, among other words, “above” and “over” as substitutes for “more than” in the Index Expurgatorius. William Safire, New York Times political columnist and grammarian, corroborated the rule in 1992 with his criticism of Bill Clinton’s conflation of “more than” and “over” during a presidential debate.

The new AP rule makes it acceptable to use “more than” and “over” interchangeably when referring to numerical quantities, such as dollars or years. For example, “my pet turtle is more than 80 years old” is now synonymous with “my pet turtle is over 80 years old,” and “I earned less than a million dollars this year” is now synonymous with “I earned under a million dollars last year.”

While this distinction may seem trivial to most of us, the rule change has recently caused a stir among copywriters, journalists, and other writing professionals who had been taught to regard the old rule as sacred. Many protested that the interchangeability of “more than” and “over” in reference to countable quantities could lead to grammatical mayhem that may allow statements such as “the cow jumped over the moon” to mean the same thing as “the cow jumped more than the moon.”

However, the AP clarified that it is “not dictating that people use ‘over’—only that they may use it as well as ‘more than’ to indicate greater numerical value” and not, as many AP Stylebook conservatives feared, as a synonym for “more than” in any other context.

What do you think about the rule change? Post your comments below.

About the Author: A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than ONE MILLION Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Thanks Anne for the update!

    I need to buy a new AP Stylebook. Mine isn’t that old, but I’d like to have the current addition.
    Amandah recently posted..What Do Images Have in Common with Wedding Dresses?My Profile

  • Interesting. Thanks for sharing this Allison and Anne.

    The AP Stylebook does have a pretty wide influence. Of course, when working with a client, it’s always best to ask if you’re not sure which style guide they prefer.

    I’ll definitely keep this in mind for my next editing gig. 🙂
    Laura Spencer recently posted..Why Writers Need Feedback and How You Can Get the Feedback You NeedMy Profile

    • Hey, Laura… good to see you here and glad you found this interesting. Yes, there is more than one style guide for sure, and the only way to know which one your client likes is to ask… of course many of them don’t have a clue 😉

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