Knowledge is a core value at SCG. This weekly column highlights something interesting learned recently by one of our team members. We hope you find it intriguing, relevant and informative.
When I write the phrase, “Language is always evolving,” I immediately connect linguistic evolution to biological evolution – the way germs became humans and humans became… balder humans. But then I remember the numerous species brought low by evolution and yep, this is the corollary I’m using to frame my reaction to the latest “over” and “more than” debacle.
I’m Going to Drop that Framing Now, But I’ll Pick It Back Up After I Explain If and Why This All Matters
The basic contention is this: When referring to quantity, measurement or most other metrics, it’s proper to use “more than” (e.g., “I visited my mommy in Indiana more than six times last year. That’s more than 500 miles each way!”). But English, doing that thing English does, gradually conflated “over” – a preposition typically associated with altitude, covering, surmounting or otherwise surpassing a thing – with “more than,” which is why you might hear the phrase, “It took me over ten hours to drive back to see my mommy in Indiana last weekend” in daily American life. That’s a normal sentence people of driving age say in America in 2018.
Back in 2014, editors of the AP Stylebook announced that AP officially considers the use of “over” instead of “more than” acceptable. Using “over” in any instance in which your gut instinct would be to use “more than” – denoting quantity, weight or really any metric – was A-OK, mostly because people were using it that way so much already. (The reason it counts as an official SCG The Most Interesting Thing I Learned This Week is because it came up again at ACES2018, the annual conference of The American Copy Editors Society, an entity I desperately hope doesn’t have constituents reading this blog for fear I’m misusing punctuation or the term “constituents.”)
The Differences Between “Over” and “More Than” in This Context Are, Like Many Rules of the Written Word, Almost Completely Arbitrary
You can read here about the dead guys who made up this rule – an editor of the New York Evening Post, the author of what might be the most embarrassingly pedantic book title I’ve ever read, et cetera. There’s a lot to say about the way in which the English language has changed since the 1800s: numerous cultural and subcultural shifts have impacted the ways Americans communicate, the effects of which linguists are still trying to track today. That’s a necessary cost of being a melting pot: unless it’s dead, a single language can’t be expected to maintain the exact same rules for centuries.
But prudish though they may seem, I’d like to believe that some of these rules originally served a purpose: to clearly denote meaning through language and avoid confusion where possible. As for myself, I’ll continue to use “more than.” To do otherwise reminds me that, to language, like the poor babirusa of India, whose natural tusks can literally grow so long they poke its brain and kill it, evolution hasn’t always been friendly.
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