Thought Leadership

In Defense of More Than: Why the AP Stylebook Editors Made a Bad Decision

On Thursday, the editors of the AP Stylebook shocked the communication and journalism world by announcing that its new edition would say that over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value.

When I read this, I had to make sure that it was not April 1. Then I needed to make sure I wasn’t reading the Onion or @fakeapstylebook.

As a professional communicator. I am outraged and disheartened by the decision.  Over is a locative. It refers to a spatial relationship. The cow jumped over the moon. More than deals with numerical value.

The reason the editors of the AP Stylebook give for this benighted decision in the stories I have read is overwhelming evidence that people use them both interchangeably.

This does not hold water with me.

I can also point of overwhelming evidence that I see people use the following interchangeably (or at least incorrectly) as well:

  • their, there, they’re
  • accept, except
  • insure, ensure

Just because people use words inaccurately or incorrectly does not mean we need to codify it in a guide for professional communicators. Relativism is not appropriate when it comes to proper grammar. The AP Stylebook describes itself as “a must-have reference for writers, editors, students and professionals. It provides fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage and journalistic style. It is the definitive resource for journalists.” As such, shouldn’t it maintain high standards and work to counter linguistic malaise rather than throw in the towel? Millions of people are now using “u” instead of “you” but if I was a cardiologist or a bank, I wouldn’t use that when communicating with clients.

I fully understand that language is dynamic and constantly evolves. The editors of the AP Stylebook also announced that “selfie” is now acceptable. That makes sense. But when we as a society and as communicators sacrifice precision and clarity in our speech, we begin to sacrifice precision and clarity in our thoughts. This is not a good thing and I would encourage the AP Stylebook editors to reconsider their decision.

The defenders of this change say that people can continue to use “more than” if they want to. But if we encourage people to ignore AP style in one instance, we are eroding its authority and usefulness. What’s next, capitalizing titles after commas?

The one good thing to come from this is that it presents us with a teachable moment. I took full advantage of it last night. My nine year old and six year old sons now know “over is a locative.”

What do you think? Is this much ado about nothing, or is this a decision that should be reconsidered?

16 Comments

  • Well-said, fellow Newhouse grad.

    When PR pros and journalists stand side-by-side at the barricades defending common sense and style sensitivity, it’s noteworthy (not note-worthy).

  • You are correct in your opinion and in speaking out. When we lose our sense of outrage we come closer to losing our independence.

  • Hopefully there are over enough people out there who also won’t be more than the moon about this! Good blog.

  • In this revision, “over” and “more than” are both imprecise
    statements of quantity. So, are you arguing over the level of imprecision? When
    presenting information, the challenge is to make the information understandable
    to the reader. Unless you believe someone will misunderstand if I said “over
    10,000 cows jumped over the moon” rather than “more than 10,000 cows jumped
    over the moon,” you have no argument. If your sons are smart, they will have
    nodded their heads in agreement with you, and then they can adopt their own vocabulary
    rules when they are over 18 years of age, or is that more than 18 years of age?

  • I agree with you 100 percent, Mark! This is exactly how “proactive” came to be included in the dictionary! Just because a lot of people say it doesn’t make it correct. Guess “like” and “as” becoming interchangeable is next!

  • This sums up my complaint of the AP over the last few years. It started for me with the “drive-thru” debacle a few years ago. Let’s not dumb down language just because people prefer not to spell or use grammar correctly. Print journalists are telling me they just update their internal stylebooks to override AP’s decisions, which makes it harder for us PR folks to write something they can use. It also means at some point people are going to stop seeing The AP Stylebook as the standard for journalistic language, which would be unfortunate.

  • Well, now my writing students can say I’m wrong and have the AP as the authority. Same as a year or so ago when AP announced that “hopefully” was OK to use even when we should say “I hope” or “we hope,” “they hope.” Bottom line, AP errs on the side of usage and usage has always been a driving force for style guides, although the American Publishers Asssociation and Chicago Manual of Style probably differ.

    AP is contrary in other ways, too. I’ve asked the editors to add a note saying “etc.” shouldn’t be attached to the end of statements that begin with e.g. or i.e. or their translated equivalents “for example” and “that is” but they’re OK with the add-on even though it’s illogical. Read Strunk and White for their take, which agrees with mine.

    My last emai to AP, which was never answered:

    “I have always wondered why the printed APS doesn’t reference ‘etc.’
    More important, why it doesn’t reference it with an admonition [my underlining below] along the lines of Strunk and White (pp.45-46, 4th ed.) regarding its use with e.g. and i.e. To wit:

    ‘Etc. The phrase is equivalent to and the rest, and so forth, and hence is not to be used if one of these would be insufficient—that is, if the reader would be left in doubt as to any important particulars. Least open to objection when it represents the last terms of a list already given almost in full, or immaterial words at the end of a quotation. At the end of a list introduced by such as, for example, or any similar expression, etc. is incorrect. In formal writing, etc. is a misfit. An item important enough to call for etc. is probably important enough to be named.’

    “I view etc., like S&W, as illogical and redundant unless it is used in a phrase that refers to a bunch of abbreviations, of which it is one.
    “But maybe like “hopefully,” you’ve given up on trying to get readers to be more precise about certain terms or uses.”

    Being the authority doesn’t always make you right. Because it’s law doesn’t mean it’s just or the truth.

  • I’m more worried than upset over this. If news media organizations won’t stand up for the proper use of words, who will? I await the day when an AP story will include a line like this: “him was quoted as saying ‘her am a great guy’.”

  • This makes me nervous for the future. If people become lax with relatively easy fixes in the english language, then what will come next? How much longer before we start using text lingo in professional business letters?

  • I agree completely but don’t think your examples are completely fair. Their/there/they’re and the others are really spelling mistakes when used incorrectly. Over versus more than gets more to how we speak and what the words we use mean. Allowing the use of over is just being grammatically lazy and I expect more from the AP Stylebook.

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