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    When Less Is Not More

    Wednesday, November 12, 2014
    Due Mani Due Generazioni - Two Hands Two Generations - by Dino Olivieri 

    Maybe your pet grammar peeve (like mine) is a misplaced apostrophe, or maybe seeing a blatant error in agreement sends you up the wall. One of the biggest complaints of many is mixing up words that describe amounts: less and fewer, or more than and over.

    The difference lies in what the words describe. There is a clear delineation between the words fewer and less. Fewer describes things that can be counted (“count nouns”) while less applies to things that cannot be divided up (“mass nouns”).

                We counted fewer than a hundred people in the audience.

                The size of the audience was less than we had anticipated.

    But the decision between more than or over is not as clear-cut. It used to be the rule that more than was used for count nouns, while over was for noncount nouns. However editors were divided on that rule and tended to disregard it whenever they wished.

    Now, an announcement by the Associated Press, that bastion of journalistic style, has rocked the world of words by declaring that it is now acceptable AP style to use more than and over interchangeably.

                There were more than three dozen applicants for the job.

                There were over three dozen applicants for the job.

    Reaction to the announcement was strong, both positive and negative. One wag (RT@TheSlot) Tweeted “More than my dead body!” Meanwhile, others blithely noted that the argument was moot, as there had never been any hard-and-fast rule about interchanging these words.

    For your own use, either common sense or your editor’s choice should rule. Stylistcally, however, it sounds odd to my ear to say:

                That building will require more than a million dollars in repairs.

    I’d argue it sounds better to say:

                That building will require over a million dollars in repairs.

    English is a living language, which means there will be changes in usage over time, and this is just one of them. Also, bear in mind that language “rules” and language “style” are not coequal. Change in style usually comes about to enhance communication, so know the rules, but, as indicated by RT@TheSlot, use common sense in your style. 

    —Joyce Lee