Distinctions without differences

The Baltimore Sun

Whenever you think it’s all over, it’s never over. 

Writing last week at Muck Rack on Associated Press Stylebook rules that should be ignored, Kenna Griffin said this:

“The Associated Press announced with the 2014 edition of the Stylebook that over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value. Writers gave a collective groan and many, including myself, refused to adopt the change.

“Over and under are states of being. More than and less than should be used when writing about values. That’s the end of the discussion for me.”

Those of us who edit pride ourselves in appreciating nuance and observing important distinctions of meaning. So one would imagine that an important distinction of meaning would be catalogued in the standard manuals of usage. I had a look at several that were near at hand.

H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1928): No entry.

Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer (1965): No entry.

Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage (1966): No entry.

John B. Bremner, Words on Words (1980): This distinction: over for “collective quantity,” “earned over $30,000 last year,” more than better for “countables,” “more than 10,000 people.”

Theodore M. Bernstein, Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971): The over/more than distinction, widely observed by copy editors, is a “bit of superstitious tinkering.” For over, “since the days of late Middle English the meaning of in excess of has been in reputable use.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994): “Disapproval of over “more than” is a hoary American newspaper tradition,” which MWDEU traces to the arbitrary dicta of William Cullen Bryant’s Index Expurgatorious of 1877, later upheld by Ambrose Bierce and promulgated in journalism schools throughout the land.

Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016): “The preposition over is interchangeable with more than … and this has been so for more than 600 years. The charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet.”

It is clear that the invented over/more than distinction is a prime example of what I have called dog-whistle editing, the observance of nuances that only copy editors can hear, and thus a waste of time. Ms. Griffin takes her place among those who will surrender their shibboleths when we pry them from their cold, dead hands. Ms. Griffin is also a professor of mass communications and is presumably instructing her charges to uphold this baseless crotchet.

It wearies me to think of the rising generations who will have to be disabused of this superstition. And it concerns me to wonder whether, when I take my seat in Hell alongside the other editors, someone else will take up the struggle.

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