Thursday, September 8, 2011

More Than & Over: Is There a Difference?

Woohoo—get excited with me!! I'm getting on a plane to visit my family today. I miss them terribly because I have not seen them for over eight months, the longest period ever in my life.

...or should I say more than eight months?

Well, ladies and gents, let me enlighten you. I came across this issue a month or so ago when a client pointed out that there was a mistake on my About page. His premise was that I had used "over" when I should have used "more than" in explaining how long I've been in this line of work.

The More Than versus Over "Rule"
Being an I-don't-believe-it-until-I-see-it kind of person, I immediately went looking for confirmations for a rule I had never heard before. Short version, here's what I discovered.
  • In American English, there is an acknowledged distinction between "over" and "more than"—mostly that "more than" is always used for quantifiable numbers—but this distinction is not backed by a grammatical rule.
  • In British English, there is no such distinction and the two can be used completely interchangeably.

The Proof
Grammar Girl admits, "I could find no grammatical rule stating that over cannot be used in place of more than."

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, on her Business Writing Blog, quotes half a dozen sources, with opinions that range from using "more than" only in formal writing to using "more than" for numerals to calling the distinction between the two "baseless crotchet."

WSU Emeritus Professor of English Paul Brians calls this issue a "nonerror," claiming that "this absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language."

The Follow Through
Unless you're following a specific style guide that requests it (usually in the newspaper biz), don't stress about this rule; go with what sounds the best in each specific instance. A professor once told me, "You don't want to be the first person to adopt a new practice—but you also don't want to be the last." I'll be watching this distinction to see if soon we'll follow British English and ignore the arbitrarily assigned distinction.

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