January 02, 2012

Grammar Lesson: "Over" Versus "More Than"

While decrying the distinction in usage of "over" to mean "more than" is perhaps a losing battle (even a lost battle), I will never succumb to such imprecision in language.  They are both widely used interchangeably to signify "in excess of," but, simply put, "over" is a spatial term while "more than" is a term of quantification.  That is, "more than" is an expression of extra countable amount, while "over" expresses the concept of being relatively higher in physical space. 

For example, these are correct:

Wendell owned more than two hundred My Little Pony collectible figurines.

The dark cloud loomed ominously over the head of Lourdes.


There are usually over twenty ingredients in mole sauce.

It's MORE THAN, people!  MORE THAN!  There are usually more than twenty ingredients in mole sauce!

Using "more than" instead of the erroneous "over" to signify a greater quantity has become popular because it is shorter, but rarely does using the correct "more than" make a sentence sound awkward.

When I was a children's book editor, I ended up specializing in coloring books, and often we would need to include a sales burst on the cover trumpeting our inclusion of stickers or temporary tattoos or window clings or an iron-on or whatnot.  Because of the smallish size of the burst (in a star shape), there wasn't room to fit "MORE THAN 50 FUZZY STICKERS!" comfortably.  However, I absolutely refused to let a book I worked on be released with "OVER 50 FUZZY STICKERS!" emblazoned on it.  We compromised by putting "50+ FUZZY STICKERS!" on instead.  A poor solution, but at least the burst text was still in the realm of quantity.

Yes, I understand that often "over" can be seen as a metaphorical usage, such as in these incorrect examples:

The temperature in India is over three hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

Mt. Washington is over 6,200 feet high.

In both examples, "more than" would still be correct, even though temperature climbs higher on a thermometer, and mountains rise into the sky.  We are still talking about quantity, not direct spatial relationships.  Mt. Washington is NOT over 6,200 feet high, or the mountain could be misread to start at 6,201 feet above sea level.

Yes, I realize that most books on grammar and style accept both usages.  They are wrong.  And they are pussies.  

So, to recap:

"Over" = comparitive spatial relationship signifying "above".

"More than" = quantitative expression meaning "in excess of".

Get it right, people.  Get it right.

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