Far too much has already been written about The Associated Press’s announcement last week that it would begin allowing the use of “over” in situations where it had required “more than,” as in “She earns over $800,000 a year.” The AP had limited the use of “over” to non-numerical and spatial relationships, as in “She stood over him and waved her paycheck.”
The announcement, made at the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference, drew gasps from the audience and so much traffic to Poynter.org’s posting that it brought down the site. (Full disclosure: this columnist, as president of the ACES Education Fund, is a member of the ACES board.)
To read much of the coverage, the reaction seemed to fall into two camps: people who are bereft at the change, many of them copy editors; and people mocking the pedantry of the people bereft at the change, many of them copy editors.
But let us take a step back. To start with, as many people have pointed out, “over” has been used in numerical values for centuries. A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary traces its falling out of favor to a famous pedant:
While working as a newspaper editor in the late 1800s, William Cullen Bryant forbade the use of over in the sense of “more than,” as in These rocks are over 5 million years old. Bryant provided no rationale for this injunction, but such was his stature that the stipulation was championed by other American editors, who also felt no reason to offer an explanation. Critics later allowed the usage in some contexts, but their reasons are dubious at best. In point of fact, over has been used as a synonym of more than since the 1300s. In our 2009 survey, 86 percent of the Usage Panel accepted over with the meaning “more than.” This usage is fully standard.
No reason is offered, nor demanded. It’s simply a rule.
Therein lies the danger of pedantry, which AmHer defines as “ostentatious display of academic knowledge, or undue attention paid to minor details or formal rules.”
Copy editors, of all people, should not be pedants, arrant or otherwise. Their job is to question, to make judgments based on context, to make communications clear, even if it means breaking a “rule.” Copy editors should not be rigid, old-growth trees that cannot yield to strong winds, and so are broken or uprooted. They should be saplings, bendable in the strong wind, but able to snap upright in ordinary times. Yes, they must uphold standards, but standards evolve. They, of all people, recognize that language changes, or else we would still be very Chaucerian today.
Both pedantry and the mocking of pedantry are unseemly. Everyone involved in communications should start questioning other “rules” whose provenance is not clear, in language, copy, and practices. Ask why a “rule” exists, and whether it applies in each case. You may (gasp!) break some “rules,” but you’ll be part of the natural evolution of language. And, most important, audiences will get the message.
Over and out.Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: American Copy Editors, Associated Press, copy editors, over, pedant, William Cullen Bryant