Hey, Associated Press Stylebook, some friendly advice: "over/more than"

October 31, 2013|By John McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

[This is the post I intended to publish yesterday. I apologize for shooting a blank.]

My estimable colleague Gary Kirchherr encouraged me the other day not to let up in my campaign against excrescences in the Associated Press Stylebook, and so, at the risk of boring you with what you have seen before, I press ahead. This time, and in a series of posts to come, I will experiment with sweet reason rather than hectoring. 

One of the most venerable usage superstitions in America newspaper journalism, and it appears to be limited to American newspaper journalism,* is the belief that over must only be used to indication spatial relationships, that it is illegitimate to use it in the sense of more than

This is pure and undiluted codswallop. Tommyrot. Claptrap. 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which always takes the long view, calls disapproval of over in the sense of more than "a hoary American newspaper tradition," tracing it to William Cullen Bryant's Index Expurgatorius of 1877, through Ambrose Bierce in 1909, and on into a series of twentieth-century handbooks. 

MWDEU finds the various justifications advanced for the distinction to be tortured rationalizations, observing that "over in the sense of 'more than' has been used in English since the 14th century" and supplying copious examples from reputable authors. 

Bryan Garner, the responsible prescriptivist, writes in Garner's Modern American Usage that "the charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet." 

That old-school prescriptivist Theodore Bernstein wrote in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins,** "Since the days of Middle English the meaning in excess of [for over] has been in reputable use. Strangely enough, those who dislike over do not hesitate to write 'above $150.' Nor do they boggle over just over, probably because just more than won't do." 

In her commentary on Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right, Jan Freeman abandons equanimity for asperity: "We don't know if Bryant actually invented the 'rule' or found it in an unknown source, but it's as mythical as the unicorn. Over has meant 'more than' for a thousand years; the usage has never been wrong, except in the glazed eyes of editors and English teachers who drank the Kool-Aid Bryant and Bierce were serving. It may be that only the death of the newspaper will kill off this parasitic superstition; dictionaries and common sense have so far had no effect."

A more responsible AP Stylebook entry than the current one might read something like this: Over in the sense of  more than or in excess of is unobjectionable. Avoid only when an ambiguity would result. 

The AP Stylebook is revised annually. It would be easy to fold a small, reasonable change like this in with the others. Realistically, the over superstition is likely to persist until the current generation of editors and journalism instructors climbs the golden staircase, but with the stylebook's help we should be able to extirpate it in a generation or two. 

 

 

*If you want to make a case for a newspaper argot that differs from the way the citizenry talks and writes, let's discuss that in the bar at the next American Copy Editors Society conference. I would be interested to hear how emulating Walter Winchell would bring the customers flocking. 

**In 1971, people. 1971. 

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