It will never be over

The Baltimore Sun

Weary as you must be about the back-and-forth about the Associated Press Stylebook's abandonment of the over/more than distinction, I have found what may be a locus classicus of bad argument in favor of the superstition. 

At Mahsable, Alex Hazlett and Megan Hess have published a point-counterpoint exchange on the subject, and I want to invite you to look at Ms. Hess's argument in some detail. I do so because her argument illustrates the defective way in which such issues are typically addressed.  

Thursday was an emotional day. It began with a gchat from a coworker — “whoa" — and a link to the Poynter post relaying the news that the AP had removed its distinction between “more than” and "over.”

Four words in, the first flag goes up. The AP Stylebook makes a minor change in one entry, one that the editors themselves present as being of small consequence, and it is an emotional issue? So we prepare ourselves for an argument marked by exaggeration, lack of proportion. 

Is nothing sacred? I fumed. My college journalism courses were filled with professors drilling the difference into our heads. Style determines what makes something further or farther, an implication or an inference. Without it, the world turns into a Lord of the Flies-esque dystopia.

And there it is. The AP Stylebook is not a sacred text. And if that one minor entry in the stylebook is abandoned, it threatens a "Lord of the Flies-esque dystopia." Even allowing a degree of exaggeration for rhetorical effect, this is a bit much. 

Sandwiched between the overstatements in this paragraph is the curious belief that anything a journalism teacher said that one still remembers must be eternally valid. Those college journalism professors must have been awesome, because the authorities on language who hold contrary views do not merit her attention. 

Anyone who gets a degree in the sciences or technical fields expects that new information will change what one was originally taught, especially as empirical evidence is developed. But, as we will see, empirical evidence cuts no ice with such people on points of English usage. 

AP editors said “overwhelming usage” of both terms prompted the change. By that reasoning, why not dump the entire AP Stylebook in the garbage? There are plenty of style rules that get overlooked (I can't count the number of times I've seen "which" instead of "that"), but that doesn't mean we should completely disregard them.

One pinpoint leak in the dike, and Holland is gone. One brick from the Great Wall of China, and it falls into rubble. One minor distinction removed from the AP Stylebook, and the whole thing might as well be abandoned, and we are all lost in that Hobbesean Lord of the Flies-esque dystopia. 

Notice the sleight of hand by which "overwhelming usage," the key empirical point, is shuffled into the deck, hidden by the dystopian cards. As many have pointed out, over in the sense of more than has been common usage in English for centuries, and is recorded as such in major dictionaries; the distinction in an invention of American newspaper editors, and exists mainly among journalists.

A common feature of these screeds is that the counter-argument and empirical evidence are seldom or never directly addressed. 

At the risk of sounding snobbish, the distinction is one that distinguishes clean, precise language and attention to detail — and serves as a hallmark of a proper journalism training. It denotes a common ground for people who care about the rules; “more than” refers to numbers and quantities, whereas “over” refers to conceptual amounts and spatial relationships (like "over the finish line"). 

So, if I disagree, I must number myself among the rabble who do not care about the rules. Never mind that this distinction has a highly questionable claim to be a "rule" in the first place. 

By the same token, can’t you argue that “effect” versus “affect” was just an arbitrary letter choice? Over time, however, that difference has accrued meaning to the masses; we shouldn't disregard a century of meaning without a second thought. The same holds true for “more than” versus “over.”

The "accrued meaning to the masses" is the one mentioned in the previous comment: the accepted meaning in standard English for centuries. The century and a half in which this imagined distinction has been taught in newsrooms and journalism classrooms hasn't made much of a dent with the masses. Neither should it. 

 But in this case, the update was not made to keep up with cultural relevancy (like the AP's addition of YOLO or selfie, as mentioned above).

Here we get the inevitable sneer, that the editors of the AP Stylebook are yielding to slang, trying to be with it. (Have you looked at the editors of the stylebook? It would be a struggle to find a group less with it.) 

It’s a change I just can’t get behind, and I'm not alone. Grammar nerds agree.

I put it to you that I am as nerdy a grammar nerd as you are apt to find in the wild or in captivity, and I emphatically do not agree. And I am in the company of fellow nerds--lexicographers, linguists, and, yes, newspaper copy editors--who do not agree. 

If someone wants to make a case for the over/more than distinction, an argument with less emotion and distortion would carry more weight. 

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