Humpty-Dumptyism

The Baltimore Sun

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

Yesterday I posted a dispatch on the bogus "over/more than" distinction beloved of journalists, with the expectation that its adherents would prove obstinately resistant to evidence and argument. Almost immediately a number of people delivered themselves into my hands. Here is a ripe specimen posted on Facebook by Raymond Billy of Resonate News:

NO ONE cares about split infinitives ;) However, saying "over 200 people," for example, just sounds silly to me. There was a time when I used to make that mistake, but when someone pointed out to me how silly it was, I only needed to hear it once for that correction to stick. Just seems like basic grammar to me. "Over" is a positional indicator or a term indicating completion. It's not quantitative.

The Oxford English Dictionary says, "With reference to quantity," "Remaining, left beyond what has been spent or taken; beyond the amount in question; in excess, in addition, more." It has one of these "more than" citations from the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. More recent OED citations include Shakespeare, Dickens, and John Maynard Keynes. Over in the sense of more than has a pedigree centuries old. It is not an error.

The error that Mr. Billy falls into, a common one among the peeververein, is to limit a word to a single, precise meaning. But we all know perfectly well that many English words have multiple senses. Sometimes they have contradictory senses that everyone accepts (cleave, sanction, &c).

To insist that over is limited to position or completion but not quantity is a form of Humpty-Dumptyism. Mr. Billy prefers the "over/more than" distinction, and he is well within his rights to do so. He has the same right to his druthers as any other writer or speaker of English. But he has no right to insist that his individual aesthetic preferences are rules governing the language. 

 


 


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