Tehee: 'Over,' instead of 'more than,' is now OK, but is that a good thing?

The Fresno BeeMarch 26, 2014 

I've written this weekly column for over one year.

If you read that sentence and cringed (as I cringed writing it), you're probably a journalist, a retired English teacher or a snarky Facebook commenter.

France has the Académie française, or l'Académie, to moderate the French language. Most of us in the news business have The Associated Press, and the organization last week upended a decades-old rule on the proper use of "more than" and "over."

The announcement was instantly met with an uproar from copy editors.

For instance, this tweet from @DOBIEST: "AP changed its 'over/more than' rule. In similar news, my whole journalism editing career is a lie."

My favorite: "More than my dead body."

Before Thursday, AP, whose stylebook is handed out out like Gideon's Bible in journalism schools, discouraged the use of "over" when describing anything that had to do with numbers (my year doing this column, for example).

Now either usage is acceptable.

And usage dictates style. For non-copy editors, "over" and "more than" are used interchangeably — as evidenced by the the tag on the Twinings Lady Grey tea I'm drinking: "Over 300 years of experience."

Indeed, of the 19 definitions of "over" as a preposition, there are "more than, or above in degree, amount or number."

To be clear, the AP is not dictating the use of one over the other, just allowing for both as acceptable.

Except with me. It is a pet peeve. "Over" is not the same as "more than" — AP be damned.

Still, if you've read my columns over this past year, you no doubt noticed a laissez–faire approach to writing and language and the AP change brings to light the fluid (and often nebulous) nature of words.

Language is built on a series of symbols. Its only meaning is that which is ascribed to it by those who use it. Language is fluid. It is influenced by geography (see the New York Times popular dialect quiz for multiple examples) and by time. It's the reason that "bad" can mean "good" or that "dude" becomes a word we use at all.

It's the reason we might one day hear most, if not all, of George Carlin's seven dirty words on TV. It's the reason "gay" has different meanings depending on your generation.

I received a voice mail once from a guy who thought my column that week was "gay." From the usage, I figure the caller was in high school. It made him sound like an idiot, but I was happy to know I have young readers.

Grammar and style are important and we should want to protect the heart of our language, lest we resort back to grunting and scribbling in the sand. But we should also be willing to adapt with the times, when appropriate. Pet peeves be damned.

That makes for better communication.

In the end, it's the message that matters.

This columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6759, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @joshuatehee on Twitter and Instagram. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com

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