Thursday, July 26, 2012

Getting over the "more than" peeve

How to debunk a peeve so it stays debunked? You might have thought the more sophisticated publications had long since gotten the word that there's nothing wrong with writing "over 500 votes," despite a journalistic superstition that only "more than 500" is correct.

But last Sunday's Times Magazine would have proved you wrong. A sentence in the cover story was clunky evidence that the myth persists. "Today," it read, "there are well more than 2500 juveniles serving time in adult prisons in the United States."

Is "well more than" really a phrase that leaps to your lips (or fingertips)? "It's well more than a year since I flew anywhere." "He's well more than 50." "There was well more than $1,000 in the bag." I don't think so: "Well over" is what we say in English. And over meaning more than was uncontroversial till the mid-19th century, when the language busybodies were at their busiest inventing new infractions. 

The earliest known objection to this over, as I've mentioned before, comes in Walton Burgess's 1856 compilation of "Five Hundred Mistakes" in English. But his "rule" was not adopted (or followed) by most usage writers. And the Times has called it bogus since at least 1971, when the paper's language maven Theodore Bernstein included it in "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins," his handbook of wrongheaded rules.

More recently, Philip Corbett cautioned Times editors in his After Deadline blog:
In most cases, changing “over” to “more than” might be harmless enough — a copy editor’s quirk, annoying to the writer but invisible to the reader, since “more than” is also perfectly acceptable. But I’m occasionally jarred to see the phrase “just more than,” which strikes me as awkward and completely unidiomatic.
Yep. Just like "well more than 2500 juveniles."


Bryan White said...

"invisible to the reader.". Yeah, not quite.

Unknown said...

"well more than 2500 juveniles."

Makes me want to slam my head off my desk.

Marc Leavitt said...

When I became a reporter in the late 60s, "more than," I was told, was NOT AP STYLE. Knee-jerkery and Pavlov prevailed. But the example you cite in The Times is JUST PLAIN DUMB.

NO ONE says that, and the copy desk, usually, but not always astute,made another bad call; well more than they should have.

Marc Leavitt said...

I have to apologize for my brain freeze yesterday. I meant to write, "over, I was told, was NOT AP STYLE."
We regret the error.

Gregory Lee said...

So, when you change "well over" to *"well more than", since evidently "well" can't modify "more", you also have to make a further change, perhaps putting "considerably" for "well". Why does this mean that "over" should not have been changed to "more than"? I don't get it.

Unknown said...

I find the use of 'more than' less colloquial than 'over.' However, the subsequent 'well more than' should be changed to 'considerably more than' or 'significantly more than' to be acceptable. Thus changed, it has a formal ring, perhaps an old-fashioned or bureaucratic feel, but does not feel incorrect. I think the point here was to try to suggest that the amount is not simply more than or over the specified amount (which seems to be missing a comma - 2,500) but a lot more than that figure. It's clumsy to say "way over" and "more over" or "much over" is just wrong.

Anonymous said...

Additionally "Considerably more than" takes up more space and could put them more than the space allocated. Moreover, it's just wrong to say "more more than" rather than "besides." That is all. Roger Wilco, more than and out.

T. Roger Thomas said...

I had a grizzled old vet of the newspaper industry explain to me the case for using "more than" instead of "over".