Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Using “Over” with Numbers is More Than Acceptable

with 3 comments

bridge in mexicoEarly in my copywriting career, I got into a heated debate with an editor about using the word over to mean more than.

I had drafted a headline on a flyer saying something along the lines of “over 5,000 whatsits” on a promotion for one of the magazines my company produced. The editor took issue with my copy, saying that it should be “more than 5,000.”

I thought that that was total crap.

Either is fine in most instances, and in the promotional piece I was working on — fewer words worked much better. But the editor was insistent on her point, trying to tell me that it’s not just a matter of style, but that using over is blatantly ungrammatical.

Why is using over before a number ungrammatical?

It’s not. But here’s why some people think it is:

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends using more than with numerals and over to indicate a spatial relationship: He draped his coat over the chair; the bridge spans over the canal. Something happened literally above or on top of something. But even this is a guide to style, not a grammar book.

And for some reason, there’s the interpretation that because over indicates a literal relation in space, it can’t be used for the more abstract meaning of in excess of. Proponents of this will often say something like, “How can you literally be over a number? Are you standing on the number 5,000?” *chortle, chortle*

Spatial words are abstract words, too.

There’s a fantastic book I highly recommend to anyone who has any interest in the history of language, linguistics, or grammar. It’s The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, and in it, Deutscher points out that all language starts from the concrete, spatial world, and soon then changes to the abstract.

Basically, we can’t create new terms for abstract ideas that aren’t in the physical realm. So instead, we use words with literal meanings as metaphors to describe abstract notions.

Here’s an example Deutcher uses with four metaphors used to show abstract meaning: “At the cabinet meeting, ground-breaking plans were put forward by the minister for tough new legislation to curb the power of the unions.” (p. 118)

Specifically for prepositions like over, Deutscher shows a concrete/abstract relationship through the example of “outside Africa” versus “outside office hours.” (p. 134) No one’s literally standing beyond the physical scope of office hours. But we need to somehow describe that kind of relationship – much like we do when talking about numbers.

I think the sticklers need to get over it.

Take a look at the heading of this section – no one would argue that it’s incorrect because they can’t literally get over their notions, would they?

So stick to your company’s style guide if you have to, but don’t forget the common sense approach and that even if using over with a number goes against someone’s style, it is grammatically correct.

Plus, everyone knows exactly what you mean when you say “over 5,000.” And if the point is communication, why not write it that way if you want to?

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Written by Nathanael Green

May 21, 2009 at 6:02 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I love this kind of stuff, and will certainly look for that Deutscher book. Someone once asked a group of us what we saw or thought when we used a phrase like ‘he just crossed over a line’–whether we saw someone stepping over a line, or whether it had left the image behind. I found that the more I thought about such expressions, the harder it was to say what was really going on in my mind as I used them.

    Seana

    May 21, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    • Seana,

      Thanks for stopping by! If you like that kind of thing, I’d definitely recommend The Unfolding of Language. I mentioned it was fantastic, and I don’t use that word lightly. It can be a bit of a heavy read at times, but it’s fascinating and even the most difficult concepts are presented really well.

      And the whole chapter on metaphor in everyday language really makes you rethink the way we talk. Like you said, “crossing over the line” is just so ingrained as an everyday saying, we forget that it had a literal, concrete meaning.

      By the way, thanks for the link on your blog! I really appreciate it!

      -Nate

      Nathanael Green

      May 21, 2009 at 10:42 pm

  2. More than happy to link to it, Nate–I add blogs mainly so that I can see when there is new content coming up in a convenient place.

    Seana

    May 22, 2009 at 3:59 pm


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