More On ‘More Than’

Doris I. Fenske, an editor at Ernst & Young in New York, e-mailed to say she was repeatedly running into uses of “over” like this one: “The concert was attended by over 1,000 people.” Long ago, she said, she was taught to use “more than” in such instances. “But lately I am seeing ‘over’ everywhere, and my red pen can barely keep up,” Ms. Fenske wrote. “Am I fighting a losing battle?”

It’s one that should not have been joined; the rule long foisted on huge numbers of us doesn’t make sense. There’s nothing wrong with “more than” (assuming we avoid the “well more than” dissonance) but there’s nothing wrong with “over,” either.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the idea of insisting on “more than” for quantities treated as individually countable sprang full-grown from the head of William Cullen Bryant, the poet and journalist, in 1877, when he was editor of the New York Evening Post. Bryant gave no explanation for his edict, but journalists picked it up, and taught it, down to our time.

Yet for both countable quantities and round amounts, the dictionary says, “over” has been standard English since the 14th century. All those centuries of precedent would seem to make “over” unexceptionable. Better still, natural.

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Evan Jenkins wrote the Language Corner column for CJR through the Fall of 2007.