Editing Myth: Over vs. More Than

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I always get a good response to the Myths of Editing posts.
This week, I’m hitting another myth: insisting on a distinction between over and more than.


The myth

Over should never be used to denote a greater numerical value. Instead, you should use more than.

  • Sample sentence: We’ve been in business over 10 years.
  • Knee-jerk editorial fix: We’ve been in business more than 10 years.

The reality

Over and more than can both be used with numerals.
Most normal human beings have always done this, but until recently, many copy editors insisted on distinguishing between these two terms. In fact, the AP Style Guide did so until 2014. Here’s what their entry on this topic used to say:

More than vs. overThe word over generally refers to spatial relationships: The plane flew over the universityMore than is preferred with numerals: The hourly wage increased by more than $3.

I followed this style religiously for years. But then AP relaxed its stance. Here’s their guidance now:

More than, over. Acceptable in all uses to indicate greater numerical value. Salaries went up more than $20 a week. Salaries went up over $20 a week.

When this happened, I started looking around and realized that nearly all the other reference guides I use offer the same advice. For example:

  • Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition. Definition 3a for over: “more than <cost ~$5>”
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage: “The charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crochet.”
  • The Chicago Manual of Style: “As an equivalent of more than, this word [over] is perfectly good idiomatic English.”
  • Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English UsageOver in the sense of more than has been used in English since the 14th century. … There is no reason why you need to avoid this usage.”

But, wait…

Don’t take this advice to mean that now we should start changing all of our more thans to overs. The point is that these two terms can be used interchangeably. And there are certainly times when more than has a cadence that over can’t capture. See Winston Churchill’s description of the attack on the port of Dunkirk, for example:

The enemy attacked on all sides with great strength and fierceness, and their main power, the power of their far more numerous Air Force, was thrown into the battle or else concentrated upon Dunkirk and the beaches. Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter.

The takeaway

More than and over can both be used to indicate greater numerical value. Follow the author’s lead and make a change only when it would improve flow or readability.
This post was written by Samantha Enslen, President of Dragonfly Editorial.

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