Did I miss the memo? Suddenly all the grammar snobs on the snobosphere are debating whether over is an improper substitute for more than. This is idiocy. Of course over means more than! Over has been used in this metaphorical sense for a millennium [Attestations from Old English and dated attestations from 1175 are available in the OED, definition III.13]. I even feel uncomfortable calling it a “metaphorical” sense, that’s how long it’s been in use and how pervasive it is in English. The connection between height and amount is central to our conception of the two. Not only can over mean “more than”, under can also mean “less than”, high can mean “a large amount” (high voltage, high-risk), low can mean “a small amount” (low wages, low intelligence). Carrying it further in the height=amount idea, we get elevated, heightened, escalated, and raised all meaning “increased” — and their verb forms mean “to increase”. And the same is true in the other direction for depressed and lowered.
Furthermore, other languages share this same idea. I just walked by a sign that said High Voltage Alto Voltaje. So Spanish is okay with the height=amount idea too.
I guess the argument against over is that it’s somehow ambiguous, but that’s literally almost never the case. Claims for the intolerable ambiguity of over are often backed up with an apocryphal story about Civil War enlistment. To serve in the military during the Civil War, the law said you had to be at least 18 years old. Apparently this was tested by the soldier stating under oath that he was “over 18”. Kids under 18, being as they are adept at circumventing the spirit of the law without circumventing the letter of the law, supposedly would go down to the local recruitment center with the number “18” drawn on the sole of their shoes. Then would be “over 18” when they made the oath. Then they’d march off to die on the killing fields. See, that’s why we can’t use metaphorical language: using over KILLS CHILDREN!
But the problem here isn’t that “over 18” is ambiguous and “more than 18” isn’t. They’re both ambiguous: more than 18 what? Inches? Months old? Lovers? Level 18 in D&D? The ambiguity instantly disappears if you say “over 18 years old” — you can’t draw the concept “18 years old” on your shoe. More than hardly buys you anything that over doesn’t.
If you really buy into this idea that over induces a legal ambiguity, I invite you to drive 95 on the highway, and then when you get pulled over, motion to the giant “55” you’ve painted on your car’s roof and gently explain to the officer that, actually, you were driving under 55, so the ticket’s null and void. I think this will be a learning experience for you.
The madness that over is not an acceptable substitute for more than was started by William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, in 1877, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Bryant GAVE NO EXPLANATION FOR THIS EDICT. (surprise!)
And, look, if you’re still unwilling to yield to reason and want to insist that proper grammar snobs make the distinction, well, you’re even wrong there. I was perusing a 1920 grammar book written by the Managing Editor of Funk & Wagnall’s New Standard Dictionary, and it says that over as a comparative is “defensible” and has the support of literary usage. This coming from a man who called out of sight an “intense vulgarism”, and who said that saying Had I have known better… stamps one as “grossly ignorant.” So if even an intense prescriptivist like him is saying this is all right, please, please listen.
[By the way, let me give a shoutout to goofy over at bradshaw of the future, who commented on a few of these anti-over posts to explain they were wrong. Also, this post might get followed up by another that delves deeper into the issue of the claimed ambiguity from using over, if there is mutual interest in such a post.]
[Update 07/28/08: As pointed out on Laurie Blandford’s blog, it turns out that the AP Stylebook also repeats this “over is for spatial relationships” claim. Why doesn’t anyone ever check to see if their grammar rules are made up before they make them affect a sizable proportion of English-language reporters?]
Summary: 1000 years of usage, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Columbia Journalism Review, and even most prescriptivists agree: over and more than are interchangeable.”