Tuesday, January 11, 2022

It's over

 A recent online discussion of English usage turned into a tussle concerning the use of over in the sense of more than, a molehill on which some are prepared to die. 

For those of you not in the know, it has been a widespread belief among U.S. journalists that over can only be properly used to indicate a spatial relationship, that to use it to mean more than in the sense of quantities is illogical, illegitimate, and illiterate.

There was a great cry of anguished souls at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society when the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced that the over/more than distinction had been dropped. (Since Paula Froke became one of the editors of the stylebook she has busied herself lightening the ship by heaving broken furniture over the side.)

I attended that conference and spoke with three lexicographers, two from Merriam-Webster and one from the American Heritage Dictionary, who were floored to learn of a distinction of usage of which they were completely unaware. Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and the other standard dictionaries list more than as one meaning of over

This meaningless distinction was apparently an invention of nineteenth-century journalists given to unexplained diktats. The instruction not to use over for more than appears in William Cullen Bryant's "Index Expurgatorius" of 1877, the "Don't List" compiled by James Gordon Bennett at the New York Herald, and in Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. From there it passed into the lore of newspaper editors and then the conventions of journalism schools. 

Here's what Theodore Bernstein of The New York Times wrote about this supposed rule in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (1971): Bierce "gave no reason for the objection and it is difficult to see how there could be any. Since the days of late Middle English the meaning in excess of has been in reputable use. Strangely enough, those who dislike over do not hesitate to write 'above $150.' " 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage observes that "over in the sense of more than has been used in English since the 14th century." Bryan Garner says in Garner's Modern English Usage that "the charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet." And Jeremy Butterfield in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage indulges in a moment of British hauteur to note "a strong tradition in American newspapers and in some American usage guides of absolute, unconditional, almost maniacal hostility to the use of over with a following numeral to mean 'in excess of, more than.' " He advises "editors and writers of other varieties of English to be aware that the anxiety continues (and to judge by some editorial forums, can almost induce nausea or hyperventilation)." 

If you have routinely changed over (quantity) to more than, as I slavishly did for much of my forty years as a working editor, it it NOT YOUR FAULT that you were badly instructed. It is your fault, however, if you continue to do so after being informed that it is a waste of time and invisible to any reader who is not a journalist. 

Go and sin no more.  


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

In the beginning

I growled today at spotting "new initiatives" in an article. (Growling in the morning while reading the news exerts the lungs and increases blood flow to the brain, both beneficial effects, especially when combined with strong coffee.) 

An initiative is a first step, a beginning. Its sibs from the Latin initiare include initial and initiate, both of which indicate beginnings. If you are taking a first step in a series of actions, you are by definition doing something new, and thus new initiative is redundant. 

Granted, if you are contrasting a new measure with some previous effort, it would be entirely proper to use new initiative, but only to contrast with the earlier one. 

I have grudgingly abandoned a losing campaign against the irritating pleonasm safe haven, but damme if I will accede to new initiative

Sunday, January 2, 2022

A far, far better thing

 The next time the Associated Press Stylebook looks to clean the cobwebs in the attic, the editors might want to take another look at farther/further

The current entry, of long standing, restricts farther to physical distance, further to "extension of time or degree." This is one manifestation of editors' inevitable impulse to tidy up the language with minute distinctions invisible to most readers, or "dog whistle editing." 

Further and farther have been interchangeable for most of the history of English, as the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, the Oxford English DictionaryMerriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and other authorities have acknowledged. 

And thus have the people spoken. If you look up further in the current Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's New World College Dictionary, you will see one of its core meanings listed as farther. 

The American Heritage Dictionary has a usage note for farther, affirming the physical distance/abstract relations distinction. Significantly, the 74 percent of the Usage Panel's endorsement in 1987 had declined to 64 percent in 2009. Since the dictionary discontinued the Usage Panel in 2018, we are unable to see how much further erosion may have taken place. But Garner's Modern English Usage of 2016, while identifying the farther/further distinction as "punctilious usage," concedes in his Language-Change Index that further for physical distance is Ubiquitous but."

For the record, I dutifully enforced farther/further over four decades as a copy editor, though having done so does not leave me with a glow of professional pride. Time could have been spent on more significant matters. 

So AP Stylebook, how about chucking this one into the dustbin?