When the news broke, reporters and editors went up in flames. Within minutes, the stunned outcries and passionate debates were filling the social network.
Russia’s invasion of the Crimea? Nope.
The passing of Topeka’s most infamous preacher? Uh-uh.
The early exit of Duke and Kansas from March Madness? Maybe a little, but … no.
No, this was an issue designed to strike at the very soul of journalists everywhere. Are you ready? Brace yourselves.
The Associated Press declared that “over” could mean the same thing as “more than.”
I’ll stand back while you recover from the faint. Feeling better? Good.
OK, it sounds like a silly thing. Frankly, it is a silly thing. But from the commentary I saw from most friends and colleagues in the industry, you’d think it was December 2012 and the Mayan gods had come to demand sacrifice.
“NOOOOOOO! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”
“That AP concession is making my brain ache.”
“More than my dead body!”
For those who don’t know — or, most likely, care — about fine points of journalism style, the AP’s stance for decades has been that “over” is a position and “more than” is a quantity. So it’s incorrect to say that I’ve had over a dozen arguments on this subject since the change was made.
Or at least, it was incorrect.
Excuse me while I grin.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as much of a style and grammar geek as any reporter. I’m insistent that “cement” is not the same as “concrete,” that “literal” does not mean figurative and that “enormity” is a horror, not a size. From the AP’s complex use of numerals (“Write out one through nine, except for all the times you don’t”) to the non-existent period in “Dr Pepper,” I fight the good fight and do so pretty well.
But — brace yourself — I don’t see the big deal here.
Part of my “meh” is because the AP has been swimming against the tide for a long time. “Over” as a figure of speech has at least a 700-year history, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a frequent guest on lists of “language rules that aren’t,” right up there with the myth that you are not to in any way split an infinitive, lest you be sentenced to a career on Star Trek.
But the larger reason is that the change does nothing to obscure understanding. No one who reads that “Babe Ruth was the first baseball player to hit over 700 home runs in a career” is likely to think that the Babe stacked up all those home runs like cord wood and then hit a ball over them, any more than someone would expect sunny side up eggs to come with a weather report.
It’s a harmless change. The end of a rule that existed only to have a rule. And really, don’t we have enough of those already.
And to those who fear that English is about to lose all meaning — well, the language has taken that step. Many times.
You could ask William Shakespeare. But he’d probably have to listen carefully to hear past your outlandish grammar and curious word choice.
You could ask Geoffrey Chaucer. But he’d likely understand one word in 20 at best, and that badly accented.
You could ask the anonymous Beowulf poet. Assuming you could even get past “Hello.” Or should it be “Hwaet!”?
Actually, you can’t ask any of them because they’re centuries dead. Minor detail. But you get the point. Language changes. Especially English. Over time, those changes add up. At some point, old and new become strangers to each other.
Our job is to keep clarity for the readers and speakers of now. While recognizing that “now” is a moving target.
By all means, fight to save useful words. Those are the paints that allow fine shades of meaning.
Absolutely, encourage prose that gives more clarity instead of less. Without mutual comprehension, there is no language.
But recognize the moment when a rule has become nothing more than a habit. In language, or anything else.
Those don’t help anything except stylebook sales.
And now, I think I’ve said more than enough on this topic. It’s time to sign off.
Over and out.