Over vs. More Than

There’s a quiet war between the over/more than camps, and I took part in it last week. I was updating my bio on my web site (you can read it here) when an associate cautioned me to replace my overs with more thans.

Describing myself, I had written:

In her corporate teaching career of over 18 years, she has worked with executives, engineers . . . .

Her newsletter, Better Writing at Work, has over 6,000 subscribers.

Susan Daffron of Logical Expressions recommended more than. She worried that nitpicking copyeditors would be upset with my substandard overs. I agreed that they might, and I decided to change them. But not without a fight–with myself.

Should I use over, which sounds more down to earth? Or should I choose more than and avoid the risk that people will think I don’t know "proper" English?

I pulled a half-dozen reference books off my shelf before I chose my side. Here’s what I found:

The Gregg Reference Manual states, "Either more than or over may be used before numbers, but more than is preferable in formal writing." Gregg adds, "In some situations–especially involving age–more than is not appropriate." Example: "people over 50."

The Associated Press Stylebook states, "More than is preferred with numerals."

The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications recommends "more than to refer to quantifiable figures and amounts." But it suggests over for "a comparison in which more is already used." Example: "over 50 percent more free space."

The Chicago Manual of Style defends over: "As an equivalent of more than, this word [over] is perfectly good idiomatic English."

Garner’s Modern American Usage emphatically states, "The charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet. "

Fowler’s Modern English Usage discusses the issue at length. It notes that American newspapers prefer more than before a number unless the number is an age, whereas in Britain over gets equal status with more than–with no quibbling.

After reading those guides, I might have just flipped a coin. But instead I decided to revise.

My bio now says:

"In her corporate career of 18+ years . . . "
"More than 50 companies and organizations . . . "
"nearly 6,000 subscribers" (While editing, I realized I do not quite have "over 6,000" subscribers to Better Writing at Work. Subscribe here and put me over the top!)

Have you taken a stand on over vs. more than? Whatever you choose, remember that with ages, over is preferred. And in a construction like the one below, remember the hyphen, or your meaning will be muddied!

jobs lost by over-50 managers

Over? More than? Whatever your choice, you can find a style manual to defend it.

Lynn
Syntax Training

14 COMMENTS

  1. When you’re quantifying your experience, I’d have gone with “more than” rather than the plus sign, which looks awkward — especially for someone offering her services as a careful writer.

  2. I considered “more than” in that sentence, but it felt a bit wordy to me there. I liked the brevity of the plus sign.

    Thanks for joining the fray.

  3. Hi Lynn

    I think that your first instinct was perfectly right.The nitpicking surrounding ‘more than’ versus ‘over’ stems from the same unthinking pedantry that says you can’t start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’. It also leads unquestioning writers to create tortured prose in an effort to avoid split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition just because . . . er . . . well . . . 18th-century grammarians said so, didn’t they?

    Personally, I love Paul Brian’s forthright pronouncement on the over versus more than issue in his list of non-errors in English: “This absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language.” See http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/nonerrors.html

    Let common sense prevail!

  4. Hi, Clare. Thank you for reminding me of Paul Brians. I have his excellent “Common Errors in English Usage” on my bookshelf, but I didn’t think to consult it for the “over-more than” controversy. According to Brians, “over” has been used as “more than” for over (NOT more than) 1,000 years!

    As always, thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  5. Lynn, thank you for this blog! I Googled “more than vs. over” and found this page. “Over” has always felt a little sloppy to me in certain usage, but I’m glad to hear that it’s not completely inappropriate.

    Scott

  6. I think it’s funny that many editors will insist their preference is correct, while most honest investigators of this subject eventually have to concede that either is usually correct and that the choice is made by feel.

    My own choice is that things countable in whole numbers — color illustrations, parking spaces, golden retrievers — get “more than,” while such ongoing flows as time or water, which are not discreet objects but are simply marked off in years or gallons, can be “over” or “under.” It satisfies my sense of logic. But I doubt I’ll sell too many editors on that one.

  7. It’s a beautifully stated preference, though. Thanks, Will.

    I need to caution you about your use of “discreet.” You actually wanted “discrete.” When the “e’s” are separated, it means “separate.”

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. I was taught that “over” refers only to distance or time. Thus “over 60” would always be appropriate when referring to age as would “over 75 miles.” However, one should use “more than” when referring to numbers of hamburgers sold. 😉

  9. Hi, Lisa. McDonald’s used to state on its sign how many hamburgers had been sold. I don’t remember whether McDonald’s used “over” or “more than.” Do you know?

    Thanks for commenting.

  10. I was taught to use more than in these situations in J-school and cringe when over is used. However, Merriam-Webster online’s third definition of the preposition form of “over” is “more than ”

  11. English speakers have become lazier over the centuries; hence the change from Old English to Middle English and so forth, but that doesn’t mean we need to abandon proper English because it seems too wordy. It is more intelligent, actually. It proves you have command of the English language when you are able to speak proper standard English.

    Because I have a minor in Journalism, I simply find it difficult to utter the words “over 50 percent” and such. “More than” is an adverbial phrase modifying something quantitative, telling the audience to what degree something is (as is the phrase “less than”). “Over” is also an adverb, but it typically tells the audience where or in what position or direction (as is the word “under”); however, it is also a preposition. “Over 50 percent” sounds like you are standing above/over the 50 percent.

    I hope this helps.

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