The Associated Press dropped a bomb on the journalism world on Thursday with a tweet announcing a change in the organization’s venerable stylebook.
Cue the outrage from journalists and grammar aficionados. The AP upended decades of journalistic tradition in less than 140 characters, and was immediately scorned for grammar heresy.
AP Style tip: New to the Stylebook: over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value. #ACES2014
— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) March 20, 2014
Prior to the rule change, the only acceptable use of the preposition “over” was in reference to physical proximity. For example, you could hold your hands over the piano keys, or hover your mouse over that cute cat picture while you decide whether to Like it on Facebook.
“More than” was used to express relational quantity with numbers. This is how you would tell the world that Facebook has more than a billion users, or you watched more than your friend did in a House of Cards marathon.
The issue hit home here at Mashable — two of our editors are at loggerheads over the question of whether “more than” is actually an acceptable substitute for “over.” Takes sides, below. You’ll also find our verdict, below.
The case for overlap
By Alex Hazlett, More Than/Over Integrationist
As an editor, the AP Stylebook may be more of a bible for me than the actual Bible. There are certainly more commandments. But in this case, we all just need to calm down. This is a change we should be welcoming, not deploring.
I get it — the rules change seems to upend The Order of Things. But the anger misses the point; the rule never made sense in the first place. It was an arbitrary style decision that had nothing to do with grammar, defensible only by that rationale of last resort: tradition.
“More than/ over” is not like the distinction between “fewer” and “less than.” In that case, there’s a question of meaning. “Less than” refers to things that are uncountable or imprecise: “I have less free time than my dog,” or “I make less than a million dollars.” Saying “I make fewer than a million dollars” means that you’re actually talking about a couple fewer dollar bills, not just telling me that your salary is lower.
“More than” and “over” have never been this clearly delineated. They’ve been used interchangeably in certain contexts for decades. In fact, according to Grammar Girl, that SEO-optimized high priestess of online language arts, the only reason that the use of “more than/over” was regulated was because New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryan preferred it. In 1877. More than 137 years later, we’re still bowing to that preference. That’s all it is: a preference. It’s a way for us as journalists to demarcate our tribe and weed out those who aren’t in it, which is basically everyone who doesn’t use an AP style guide.
There are clearly independent use cases where “more than” or “over” are each the only acceptable option. We’ll still be writing “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” “over my dead body” and “Joe exercises more than Tom.” To switch those around would be clearly wrong and isn’t what the AP was suggesting. The change covers the cases in the middle, where you want to refer to a greater quantity, and where the words can often be substituted with no loss of meaning. There’s nary a difference in writing that “Lady Gaga has over a million Twitter followers” instead over “more than.” The meaning is clear and when you’re trying to write tweets and short headlines, five extra characters make a difference.
It’s been a debate here at Mashable whether to continue to abide by the old rule or adopt the new. I’m in the minority (population: one) in lobbying for embracing the new rules. Internet journalists, perhaps more than any other kind, occupy the grey area on the cutting edge of language development. The AP hasn’t always caught up quickly to words like selfie, YOLO, website and Internet. Style is arbitrary and choosing which language etiquette to adhere to says more about us than it does about language. As someone who helps write about the conversations we have online, I want to be a part of that community and speak like our readers speak (well, write).
I’m as much of a grammar curmudgeon as anyone. It’s literally my job, and a specialized knowledge in which I take great pride. But in this case, I’m firmly on the side of the democratic masses, and I can’t defend a rule that makes no sense. The AP, despite the nostalgic kerfuffle that’s been frothing online, is right on, as usual.
The case against
By Megan Hess, More Than/Over Separatist
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.”
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.
But it wasn’t just that J-school loyalty that fueled my fire.
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.
The more than/over distinction is a long-heralded one that should not be given up lightly. 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”).
One can argue the distinction is more stylistic than grammatical. And that’s fine; publications, online or print, should be able to dictate their styles for themselves. Style still holds meaning. Above, Alex argues that the difference is an arbitrary one. 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.”
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary lists several uses of “over,” one of which includes “beyond some quantity, limit, or norm often by a specified amount or to a specified degree,” with the example phrase “the show ran a minute over.” None of the example sentences use it in the stead of “more than,” which is telling.
As journalists, we should constantly evaluate and analyze our writing practices and whether they make sense; the mere fact that we’ve been doing something forever doesn’t make it right. The AP Stylebook makes updates every year, and I certainly agree with some of its recent changes. 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). It’s a change I just can’t get behind, and I’m not alone. Grammar nerds agree.
A brief interlude to show you that tweet:
And now the tirade continues:
Our style guide at Mashable deviates from the AP in some regards (a recent addition includes “cockblock” as one word), and this is one to add to the books. Plus, Fowler’s Modern English Usage notes that in Britain, “over” has equal status as “more than.” Do we really want to abide by the same stylistic norms as a culture that uses colour? I think not.
Mashable will continue to distinguish between “more than” and “over,” despite the AP’s recent change.
So, to recap: