Arrant Pedantry

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Over Has Always Meant More Than. Get Over it.

Last month, at the yearly conference of the American Copy Editors Society, the editors of the AP Stylebook announced that over in the sense of more than was now acceptable. For decades, newspaper copy editors had been changing constructions like over three hundred people to more than three hundred people; now, with a word from AP’s top editors, that rule was being abandoned.

According to Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski, who was in attendance, the announcement was met with gasps. Editors quickly took to Twitter and to blogs to express their approval or dismay. Some saw it as part of the dumbing-down of the language or as a tacit admission that newspapers no longer have the resources to maintain their standards. Others saw it as the banishment of a baseless superstition that has wasted copy editors’ time without improving the text.

The argument had been that over must refer to spatial relationships and that numerical relationships must use more than . But nobody objects to other figurative uses of over, such as over the weekend or get over it or in over your head or what’s come over you?. The rule forbidding the use of over to mean more than was first codified in the 1800s, but over can be found in this sense going back a thousand years or more, in some of the earliest documents written in English.

Not only that, but parallel uses can be found in other Germanic languages, including German, Dutch, and Swedish. (Despite all its borrowings from French, Latin, and elsewhere, English is considered a Germanic language.) There’s nothing wrong with the German Kinder über 14 Jahre (children over 14 years) (to borrow an example from the Collins German-English Dictionary) or the Swedish Över femhundra kom (more than five hundred came). This means that this use of over actually predates English and must have been inherited from the common ancestor of all the Germanic languages, Proto-Germanic, some two thousand years ago.

Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, wrote that “no rationale exists for the ‘over can’t mean more than’ rule.” And in a post on the Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, Sokolowski gave his own debunking, concluding that “we just don’t need artificial rules that do not promote the goal of clarity.” But none of this was good enough for some people. AP’s announcement caused a rift in the editing staff at Mashable, who debated the rule on the lifestyle blog.

Alex Hazlett argued that the rule “was an arbitrary style decision that had nothing to do with grammar, defensible only by that rationale of last resort: tradition.” Megan Hess, though, took an emotional and hyperbolic tack, claiming that following rules like this prevents the world from slipping into “a Lord of the Flies-esque dystopia.” From there her argument quickly becomes circular: “The distinction is one that distinguishes clean, precise language and attention to detail — and serves as a hallmark of a proper journalism training.” In other words, editors should follow the rule because they’ve been trained to follow the rule, and the rule is simply a mark of clean copy. And how do you know the copy is clean? Because it follows rules like this. As Sokolowski says, this is nothing more than a shibboleth—the distinction serves no purpose other than to distinguish those in the know from everyone else.

It’s also a perfect example of a mumpsimus. The story goes that an illiterate priest in the Middle Ages had learned to recite the Latin Eucharist wrong: instead of sumpsimus (Latin for “we have taken”), he said mumpsimus, which is not a Latin word at all. When someone finally told him that he’d been saying it wrong and that it should be sumpsimus, he responded that he would not trade his old mumpsimus for this person’s new sumpsimus. He didn’t just refuse to change—he refused to recognize that he was wrong and had always been wrong.

But so what if everyone’s been using over this way for longer than the English language has existed? Just because everyone does it doesn’t mean it’s right, right? Well, technically, yes, but let’s flip the question around: what makes it wrong to use over to mean more than? The fact that the over-haters have had such an emotional reaction is telling. It’s surprisingly easy to talk yourself into hating a particular word or phrase and to start judging everyone who allegedly misuses it. And once you’ve developed a visceral reaction to a perceived misuse, it’s hard to be persuaded that your feelings aren’t justified.

We editors take a lot of pride in our attention to language—which usually means our attention to the usage and grammar rules that we’ve been taught—so it can seem like a personal affront to be told that we were wrong and have always been wrong. Not only that, but it can shake our faith in other rules. If we were wrong about this, what else might we have been wrong about? But perhaps rather than priding ourselves on following the rules, we should pride ourselves on mastering them, which means learning how to tell the good rules from the bad.

Learning that you were wrong simply means that now you’re right, and that can only be a good thing.

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Temblor Trouble

Last week’s earthquake in northern Japan reminded me of an interesting pet peeve of a friend of mine: she hates the word temblor. Before she brought it to my attention, it had never really occurred to me to be bothered by it, but now I can’t help but notice it and be annoyed anytime there’s a news story about an earthquake. Her complaint is that it’s basically a made-up word that only journalists use, and it seems she’s essentially right.

A quick search on Mark Davies’ Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that temblor occurs just over twice as often in newspaper writing as in magazine writing, and more than three times as frequently in newspaper writing as in fiction. It’s effectively nonexistent in academic writing—the only two hits in COCA are actually in Spanish contexts, as are three of the hits under fiction. It’s also worth noting that all of the spoken examples are from news programs. The following chart shows its frequency per million words.

So what’s to explain the strange distribution of this word? I strongly suspect it’s the doing of what John E. McIntyre calls “the dear old, so frequently misguided, Associated Press Stylebook.” I only have a copy of the 2004 edition (which my wife picked up at a yard sale for 50 cents—don’t worry, I wouldn’t waste good money on it), but the entry for temblor (yes, there’s actually an entry for it) merely refers one to earthquakes. That entry goes on for a page and a half about earthquake magnitudes and notable earthquakes of the past before noting that “the word temblor (not tremblor) is a synonym for earthquake.”

I don’t understand why the AP Stylebook needs to point out spelling and synonymy—I thought those were the jobs of dictionaries and thesauruses, respectively—but I find it interesting that it doesn’t list any other synonyms. Thesaurus.com lists convulsion, fault, macroseism, microseism, movement, quake, quaker, seimicity, seism, seismism, shake, shock, slip, temblor, trembler, undulation, and upheaval, though obviously not all of these are equally acceptable synonyms.

So why does temblor get singled out? I honestly don’t know. I do know that journalists are fond of learning synonyms to avoid tiring out common words, and I know that at least some journalists take the practice to unreasonable levels, such as the teacher who made her students memorize 120 synonyms for said. Whatever the reason, journalists seem to have latched on to temblor, though few others outside the fields of newspaper and magazine writing have picked it up.

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Gray, Grey, and Circular Prescriptions

A few days ago John McIntyre took a whack at the Associated Press Stylebook’s penchant for flat assertions, this time regarding the spelling of gray/grey. McIntyre noted that gray certainly is more common in American English but that grey is not a misspelling.

In the comments I mused that perhaps gray is only more common because of prescriptions like this one. John Cowan noted that gray is the main head word in Webster’s 1828 dictionary, with grey cross-referenced to it, saying, “So I think we can take it that “gray” has been the standard AmE spelling long before the AP stylebook, or indeed the AP, were in existence.”

But I don’t think Webster’s dictionary really proves that at all. When confronted with multiple spellings of a word, lexicographers must choose which one to include as the main entry in the dictionary. Webster’s choice of gray over grey may have been entirely arbitrary. Furthermore, considering that he was a crusader for spelling reform, I don’t think we can necessarily take the spellings in his dictionary as evidence of what was more common or standard in American English.

So I headed over to Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English to do a little research. I searched for both gray and grey as adjectives and came up with this. The grey line represents the total number of tokens per million words for both forms.

gray and grey in tokens per million words

Up until about the 1840s, gray and grey were about neck and neck. After that, gray really takes off while grey languishes. Now, I realize that this is a rather cursory survey of their historical distribution, and the earliest data in this corpus predates Webster’s dictionary by only a couple of decades. I don’t know how to explain the growth of gray/grey in the 1800s. But in spite of these problems, it appears that there are some very clear-cut trend lines—gray became overwhelmingly more common, but grey has severely diminished but not quite disappeared from American English.

This ties in nicely with a point I’ve made before: descriptivism and prescriptivism are not entirely separable, and there is considerable interplay between the two. It may be that Webster really was describing the linguistic scene as he saw it, choosing gray because he felt that it was more common, or it may be that his choice of gray was arbitrary or influenced by his personal preferences.

Either way, his decision to describe the word in a particular way apparently led to a prescriptive feedback loop: people chose to use the spelling gray because it was in the dictionary, reinforcing its position as the main entry in the dictionary and leading to its ascendancy over grey and eventually to the AP Stylebook‘s tweet about its preferred status. What may have started as a value-neutral decision by Webster about an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability has become an imperative to editors . . . about what is still an utterly inconsequential issue of spelling variability.

Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for grey.