More Than Over and Above: Dispelling the Myth

Over means the same thing as more than. So does above. Saying that a symphony ticket cost you more than $100, above $100, or over $100 are all equally acceptable ways of saying that you must really love Mozart. "Uh, huh," you say. "So what's the big deal?" The big deal is, not everyone knows this. It may be common sense but it's not common knowledge. One house style guide I consult regularly stipulates that "over" should never be used instead of "more than." But there's nothing wrong with doing so. The usage is not incorrect; the style guide is. Don't believe me? Okay, then, believe Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition. Among its definitions for over and above used as prepositions are these, complete with examples:
Above--3: exceeding in number, quantity, or size: more than <men above 50 years old>. Over--3a: more than <cost over $5>.
Why Is This Important? Maybe it's not if you're not a copywriter. But if you do write copy, then you regularly encounter situations where having just one way to express inexact figures would drive you nuts. For instance:
In a survey of more than 600 men more than 35 years old who purchased a used car more than five years old, more than 75 percent spent more than $10,000.
Ecch! See how much more naturally the following version reads:
In a survey of more than 600 men over age 35 who purchased a used car more than five years old, over 75 percent spent above $10,000.
Now, I will grant you that the sentence can use further refining, but it illustrates my point. Presumably, the converse also holds true for less than (or fewer than) and under, though don't quote me on that, because I haven't looked it up and don't intend to do so here. I also will leave the nuancing of above, over, and more than for you to figure out. Just reshuffling their order in the above example suggests to me that there are subtle differences, primarily with above. But going strictly by their definitions, all three are as interchangeable as different brands of table salt. English grammar has enough complexities; let's not confuse them with inanities. You know what Winston Churchill said about never ending a sentence with a preposition.* The same spirit applies here. Next time you want you say over or above instead of more than, go ahead and do so, that's what I say. Seize the adventure, you intrepid soul. ADDENDUM: The pushback I've gotten on this post reminds me that I'm not the only person in this world who cares a great deal about words. Having processed input from other writers who haven't agreed with me on this topic, I think the tone of my post was exuberant to the point of flippancy, and I wish I had taken a more mature, balanced approach. I haven't changed my stance, but I think I could have done a better job of communicating it--an embarrassing thing for me to admit as a writer. I now consider the above post to be just the first part of the discussion. Please check out the comments for part 2. It consists of one person's thoughtful, well-reasoned input and my response. --------------- * He said, "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put." At least, so the story goes, though what his exact words were, nobody knows. That's a whole ’nother issue which once again I won't get into. You can read more about it here if you're interested.

2 thoughts on “More Than Over and Above: Dispelling the Myth

  1. Bob,
    I’m not sure that I agree with your entry (other than telling me to “seize the adventure” of course (smile)). I have learned over the years of writing as well as having an AP stylebook beat over my head while getting my BA, that “more than” was to be used when defining numbers/quantity/amounts and that “over” was to be used when defining time/location/movement.

    “Over” defining time-
    Time that spans: I learned how to drive over the summer.
    Time that ends: The play is over.
    Time that repeats: If I fail, can I take the test over?

    “Over” defining location-
    Location that’s specific: The ceiling is over my head.
    Location that’s random: The balls were scattered all over the yard.
    Location that’s different: Wouldn’t you rather be over here?

    “Over” defining movement-
    Movement from place to place: Lets race over to that tree.
    Movement from higher to lower: The glass fell over when I poured the wine.

    If you try and use “more than” in any of those instances, it simply does not work. To me, that means that there is an inherent difference, albiet subtile, in the meaning of the two “over” and “more than”.

    I rewrote your sentence example, without using the word “over”, and made sure all all the “numbers” kept the same meaning.

    “In a survey of more than 600 men, age 35 and older, who purchased a used car that was five years old or older, more than 75 percent spent a minimum of $10,000.”

    There are obviously better ways to rewrite your sentence and maintain the same meaning, I just wanted to illustrate my point.

    With that said, I’m open to a counter-point as I seldom view a topic from a “I’m right and you’re wrong” perspective. It’s much more valuable to me to try and think about other opinions/viewpoints.

    Doug Foster
    I almost forgot to mention that I don’t agree with your reference to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as seemingly the “end-all/be-all” of what’s correct English grammar. Maybe that can be the next topic up for discussion (smile).

  2. Doug, thanks for your thoughtful comment. And my compliments on your rewrite–you did a great job!

    Let me begin by clarifying that I don’t consider Merriam-Webster the “be-all and end-all” of word usage. However, neither do I dismiss its definitions or consider the AP Stylebook to be inherently more correct. After all, MW’s whole mission is to accurately define words, and it is the industry standard for trade book publishing in the United States. Besides, the Chicago Manual accepts the use of “over” as a perfectly legitimate equivalent of “more than” (it doesn’t address “above”).

    As you’ve pointed out, one word can have a multiplicity of meanings and applications, and context determines word selection. In many cases, “more than,” “over,” and “above” cannot possibly serve interchangeably. For instance, if I come across a sentence that reads, “A ceiling lamp glowed dimly more than her head,” my reaction will be, “What the…?” The sentence just doesn’t make sense. But give me “A ceiling lamp glowed dimly above her head,” and I will be at peace with the world and can continue reading.

    So we can agree up front that there are plenty of situations where “more than,” “over,” and “above” don’t at all carry a similar meaning. You know that, I know that, and I think all writers know that.

    We’re left, then, with contexts where these words can in fact serve synonymously to the satisfaction of most readers. It’s in these instances where Merriam-Webster provides the rationale and latitude for a writer to choose. Style may dictate word choice, as has been the case for you with the AP Stylebook and as is the case for me with some clients. House style trumps MW definitions always; what the client wants, the client gets.

    But that is different from saying that Webster’s is just plain wrong or that a writer is wrong for adopting a usage that Webster’s deems appropriate.

    To be clear, I am NOT saying that “more than,” “over,” and “above,” don’t have nuances which can make one word a better choice than the others. I recognize that there are subtleties, and good writing takes them into account. I said so in my post.

    However, a writer is not bound to biases of usage that the dictionary itself does not support. He or she is free to make judicious choices, the operative word being “judicious.” This is particularly true where other considerations enter in–such as repetitiveness, a pet peeve of mine as a book publishing copywriter who for many years had to work with limited space. That’s what I was getting at with the example I furnished. Just as you had a point to make with your rewrite, I had a point to make with mine: to demonstrate the absurdity of working “more than” to death simply to avoid using “over” and “above” in an instance where those words would serve just fine. Of course there are other solutions, and you’ve offered a good one; it just misses my point, that’s all.

    I think that if there’s anything I would fault my post for, it’s the blithe, even glib manner in which I’ve tackled this topic. If I were to write the post today, I would do more than merely tip my hat in passing to the subtleties of word choices. Without the fascinating colorations and rhythms that words possess, our language might be easier to use, but it would also be pretty darn boring. So I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to share your views, Doug, and that you’ve done so in a candid, thoughtful, and respectful manner.

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