So ‘Over’ It: AP Loses ‘More Than’ Style

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?

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3 Responses to So ‘Over’ It: AP Loses ‘More Than’ Style

  1. Patricia Oliverio-Lauderdale says:

    I’m glad you addressed this issue, Zander. I was not sure what to think when I initially heard about the change. I agree that it is reasonable that language evolves over time (no pun intended when using “over” here!). Words and phrases change and it is logical that the AP Stylebook should keep up with those changes just like dictionaries. However, this particular change is a bit strange to me. I think there are just too many instances where it would sound awkward to substitute over and more than. For example, in the tweet you placed in your post saying “more than my dead body” makes no sense! I think it was an irrational choice and AP should have continued to make a distinction between the words. I understand that in many contexts, over still makes sense for more than, but not enough to merit a change. That makes me wonder then if AP Style follows any criteria or rules before making a big change. If it really was due to peer pressure like you state, that makes AP Style seem not credible. It makes me wonder, what’s the point of a rule book then?

  2. Megan Miller says:

    As Cronkite students, I’m sure we all cringed as we read this post. I remember this was my editing professors biggest pet peeve and he would always correct us when this specific rule was used incorrectly and that has been imprinted in my mind ever since!

    With that said, I think this was a poor decision on AP’s part. Anyone who knows AP style enough to care about this change is someone who cares enough about the difference in context of “over” and “more than.” Anyone else who is not in the journalism or copy editor field and does not have to surround themselves with AP style on a daily basis simply might not care about the exchange of meaning in these terms.

    It’s nice to see that there are still other English language enthusiasts who care about grammatical dignity. However, this change of grammatical rules is close to being blown out of proportion. Those who know the contexts of “over” and “more than” will always use them according to traditional AP style, no matter what the rule says now.

  3. Brett Nachman says:

    This is quite a contemplative post, Zander. I appreciate your wit in this piece. This topic makes me think about the type of precedent this may have in causing other major AP style changes to occur. To some extent, I think journalists and others are exaggerating the severity of this alteration, but I think it speaks to what can unfold when individuals’ perceptions of language use are shifted. People embrace accustomed practices — especially journalists — and when those become altered in favor of something more ambiguous and arguable, further discussions emerge. This is almost akin to how people handle death. They mourn, compromise, argue, demonstrate frustration and later move on. Similarly, I think this is how people are viewing how “more than” can have the same meaning, so to speak, as “over.” I think the change is unnecessary and somewhat ridiculous, too, but I also believe people get wound up over trivial things. Will this inspire journalism professors and bosses to dismiss other traditional rules? Probably not. It could be argued that people are smart enough to see the differences between these two ways of phrasing matters. Regardless of if this change is good or bad, I think our attention should be more focused on the “why” element. Why now? What exact measures or experiences led to the AP making this decision? I highly doubt this change will inspire a slew of further major grammatical changes, but even if it does, we must understand that language evolves. Think of how many new words are added to the dictionary each year, even if they have little value in the world. I think it’s unwarranted to make a big shebang over trivial matters like this, as much as I treasure proper usage of vocabulary. I’m more than over talking about this any further. (Let’s only hope the AP does not change the different meanings between “farther” and “further.”)

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