more than vs. over

Should you use more than or over in this sentence: “They’ve received ______ 500 emails today.” Unlike the words we’ve focused on in many of our previous posts (e.g., appraise vs. apprise and loathe vs. loath), more than vs. over don’t look or sound similar. But what does this mean? Do they have distinct definitions in all types of sentences or can you use them interchangeably?

Well, you’re in luck. We’re about to tell you when to use more than vs. over in a sentence.

The more than vs. over “rule”

Some people believe that more than vs. over can’t be used interchangeably in a sentence. They would say that when you’re talking about numbers, you have to use more than. That is, they would say that these sentences are correct:

  • “They’ve received more than 500 emails today.”
  • “I’ve watched more than 20 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in the last 36 hours.”
  • “We’ve ordered more than 250 cupcakes for the party.”

And they would say that these sentences are incorrect:

  • “They’ve received over 500 emails today.”
  • “I’ve watched over 20 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in the last 36 hours.”
  • “We’ve ordered over 250 cupcakes for the party.”

Why do they think you can use only more than in these sentences? Because in the 1800s, an American poet and New York Evening Post editor named William Cullen Bryant said he preferred the use of more than vs. over in sentences like these. Yup, that’s the only reason. There’s never been a grammatical reason for using more than vs. over when talking about numerical quantities.

The change that broke the journalism world

Using more than vs. over has never been a real grammar rule. And most style guides have agreed for quite some time that it’s perfectly fine to use more than vs. over interchangeably in numerical contexts. But there was one major style guide that was holding out on the traditional more than vs. over distinction for a long time: the AP Stylebook.

The AP Stylebook is essentially a style bible for journalists. And up until a few years, it advocated using more than instead of over when writing about numbers of things. So when its editors announced in 2014 that they were changing the stylebook to permit using more than vs. over interchangeably, some people lost it. (It may seem like a finicky grammar nuance to you, but this was a BIG thing for copyeditors and grammar nerds.)

Why did the AP Stylebook change?

Why did the AP Stylebook suddenly change its stance after holding out on the more than vs. over distinction for so long? The editors realized that most people use more than vs. over interchangeably. They also noted that there’s no grammatical reason for using only more than when talking about numbers. So they felt like they were swimming against the tide for no reason (and dragging lots of journalists and writers with them).

Does anyone still distinguish between more than vs. over?

At this point, most major grammar and style authorities agree that you can use more than vs. over interchangeably. But this doesn’t mean that everyone does. Some people are so attached to the traditional “rule” that they can’t let it go. And it’s not just octogenarian copyeditors who are clinging to the distinction between more than and over. Even Mashable (of all online outlets!) has declared that it will continue to distinguish between the two terms despite the AP’s changes.

Summary

Some people think you can use more than but not over when describing numerical quantities. But this isn’t a real grammar rule. So feel free to use more than vs. over interchangeably.

Would you use appraise or apprise in this sentence: “Let’s ______ the situation”? Find the answer in our post on the difference between appraise vs. apprise.




When to use more than vs. over
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2 thoughts on “When to use more than vs. over

  • June 26, 2019 at 10:35 am
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    I have no strong opinion on the “more than” vs. “over” debate, but I just wanted to point out that William Cullen Bryant was also a very famous poet. That is his primary legacy. To refer to him simply as a New York Evening Post editor (although he was) seems like a strange choice.

    Reply
    • June 28, 2019 at 4:05 pm
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      Hi Candice,

      Thanks for pointing this out. (I clearly don’t know my American poets!) I’ve updated the post accordingly.

      Reply

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