Using “Over” with Numbers is More Than Acceptable
Early 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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