Over and more than have always been used interchangeably in day-to-day conversation, much to the chagrin of people who root themselves in Associated Press style, like journalists and copy editors. So when AP officially announced that more than and over are acceptable counterparts to mean the same thing, a torrent of outrage erupted. Twitter was rife with protest against the rule change.
After all, the AP stylebook is scripture for journalists and copy editors alike. It’s been a longstanding rule that “over” is not to be used when describing anything to do with numbers. It was a tricky rule for the layman to remember, but it was also very black and white for anyone who adequately immerses themselves in the nuances of the English language.
So what prompted the change of heart? The discovery of a long-held grammar secret? Not at all. It could essentially boil down to peer pressure, given what Darrel Christian, editor of the AP stylebook, said on behalf of Erin Madigan White, AP senior media relations manager: “We decided on the change because it has one common usage. We’re not dictating the people use ‘over’—only that they may use it as well as ‘more than’ to indicate great numerical value.”
Peter Sokolowski, lexicographer of Merriam-Webster, tweeted that this trend is verbal communication was indeed the game changer for AP, citing “overwhelming evidence” that it was for the best.
Grammar has undergone many changes, of course. The fact that the AP stylebook is updated every year is of at least some indication that nothing is set in stone. Even so, teeth are gnashing and the scent of blood is in the water.
It is easy to attribute this uproar to self-righteous grammar Nazis and old journalistic dinosaurs set in their ancient ways. But the criticisms are not entirely without merit. As Media Bistro pointed out, the distinction between “over” and “more than” ought to be respect for logical reasons:
“Would you write ‘attendance at the client’s event was over fifty people’? We hope not—unless “Ms. Attendance” had some dealings with those 50 unlucky people in the past.
“It’s simple: ‘over’ refers to an abstract physical or metaphorical distance: over the line, over the edge, over the limit, over capacity…
“When you’re discussing quantities, however, it’s always ‘more than’: ‘I ate more than thirty cookies, which was still more [cookies] than I ate on Monday’. The real confusion comes when discussing percentages, but you can solve that problem by thinking of each percentage point as a unit of measurement (which it is). Does ‘Holy crap, over half of the hairs on my head are gone’ sound right in any way?”
When put in such simple and thorough terms, the pandemonium becomes easier to understand, as volatile as it may be.
And given that pandemonium and widespread criticism of AP’s latest grammar bomb, it stands to reason that there will be much debate in the oncoming days about the legitimacy of this change and how seriously it will be taken under its wing by practicing journalists and copywriters. An article by NBC Washington stated that one Washington journalist predicted an “uprising.”
It is yet another entry in the ongoing controversy of the erosion and oversimplification of the English language—devolving from a precise and vast array of words and structures to a one-dimensional bargain bin that anyone can skim over and walk away with something acceptable.
Potentially, this decision sets the standard for future dramatic AP style changes.
Was this a good decision on AP’s part? Should there be more discussion and debate before this merging becomes set in stone? Is this just overreaction on the critics’ part or a surefire sign of the gradual corrosion of grammatical dignity?