by Bonnie Trenga
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic, more than versus over, was written by guest writer Bonnie Trenga.
And now, on to our word choices.
Erin is a copy editor at a financial company and says writers she works with are always writing things like "over $50 million" and "over 12%." She asks, “Is that wrong, or am I losing it? Shouldn't it be "more than $50 million” and “more than 12%?”
Thanks for the question, Erin. You’re not losing it, but as usual with matters of word choice, there’s more than one opinion about whether it’s OK to use “more than” and “over” interchangeably to mean “in excess of.” So don’t worry about being confused.
More Than Versus Over
For more than a hundred years, some American journalists—but not British ones for whatever reason—have disapproved of using over instead of more than before a numeral. It all started way back in 1877 with the editor of the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant. He didn't like people to use over before a numeral, and although he gave no reason for his disapproval, the rule made its way into many American newsroom style guides. For instance, the famous journalist and language commentator William Safire has noted his displeasure with phrases like “over 150,000 AIDS deaths” on more than one occasion (1,*). And Bill Walsh, a newspaper editor and author of Lapsing into a Comma (3), also makes a subtle distinction between over and more than. He does say, however, that his preference for over in certain cases is a matter of style. Merriam-Webster sums up the situation by saying that the disapproval of the original hater, Mr. Bryant, and other journalists is “a hoary American newspaper tradition,” “hoary” meaning “tiresome” or “stale” (4).
As I’ve said, a few sources feel you should definitely use over in some cases and more than in other circumstances. However, I could find no grammatical rule stating that over cannot be used in place of more than. The majority of style pros attribute the objection to tradition and not actual grammar rules. Various dictionaries and style guides I looked at consider more than and over to be synonyms that mean “in excess of” (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). For example, you could say you ran “over a mile” or you ran “more than a mile.” Either way, you’d be a bit tired. You could also say the price is “not over five dollars” or “not more than five dollars.” These authorities would have no problem if the financial writers at Erin’s company wrote “over $50 million” or “over 12%.” It would also be fine to write “more than $50 million” or “more than 12%.”
Evaluate Your Writing
The AP Stylebook encourages you to look at your particular sentence and then pick whichever phrase sounds best (10). I think this is a great suggestion. You always want to evaluate your phrasing for each specific sentence you’re writing, not just choose any old word. The AP guide suggests that “She is over 30” sounds better than “She is more than 30.” The AP’s second example is “Their salaries went up more than $20 a week.” I do think it would sound odd to say “Their salaries went up over $20 a week.” I would definitely pick more than in that sentence. If you choose to agree with the majority of the style pros and use more than and over interchangeably, always read over your work and make sure the phrase you’ve chosen sounds right in your particular sentence. At the beginning of this podcast, I stated, “There’s more than one opinion” about this. I do think it would have sounded odd if I’d said, “There’s over one opinion.” Don’t you agree?
If you are working for a newspaper, you may want to honor tradition and carefully consider the argument of Mr. Safire and Mr. Walsh and make a distinction between more than and over.
But if you don't work in a newsroom, you're free to use more than and over in front of numbers as you see fit.
One last thing: whichever way you go on this debate, remember that than is spelled T-H-A-N, not T-H-E-N.
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier. You can find more of her work at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.
My Favorite Shortcomings is a compilation from podcaster Kevin Cummings. Every week Kevin releases a six-minute podcast of a tightly written, amusing reflection on life as a man, husband, and parent of teenagers, and now he's taken some of the all-time favorites and turned them into a book. It's a great deal at $6.99, but if you can't spring for it, Kevin has also made it available as a free PDF.
That's all. Thanks for listening.
1. Safire, W. “On Language: But Who Won on Language?”The New York Times, October 25, 1992, http://tinyurl.com/5uywhj
2. Safire, W. “On Language: Growing Down Grows Up.” The New York Times, November 15, 1992, http://tinyurl.com/592x4k
3. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, pp. 181-2.
4. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, p. 703.
5. over. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved April 23, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/over
6. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1984, p. 839.
7. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Portland House, 1989, p. 1025.
8. O’Conner, P. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 189-90.
9. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 582.
10. Goldstein, N., ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996, p. 151.