“more than” vs. “over”

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Language
January 13th, 2004 • 1:49 am

This is something that has been bothering me for a long time… Since English is only my second language, I don’t always have the “intuitive” knowledge required.

In this particular case, I just can’t seem to find any information about the difference between more than and over when applied to a number.

Is there any difference between more than 400 subscribers and over 400 subscribers?

I’ve just submitted the question to the Chicago Manual of Style. (There is nothing in the manual about this.) To their great credit, they provided an almost immediate answer:

The meaning is the same, and I don’t know of a preference for either expression on the part of grammarians, but “more than” strikes me as slightly more formal than “over.”

When I look at random for occurrences of the two phrases with Google, I find all kinds of pages where one is used in the summary of an article and the other one in the body of the article itself. Which would indicate that they are indeed interchangeable. But I’d like to know for sure. Yet I cannot find any reference to the issue in any style guide or English grammar.


13 Responses to ““more than” vs. “over””

  1. Henry Neugass says:

    The difference is slight, and I would agree with the previous comment that writers commonly use the terms interchangeably to avoid repetition.

    “Over” has a slightly greater implication of quality as well as quantity. The fragment (headline?) “Leeds over Glasgow” tells me Leeds won the match. But seeing the fragment “…Detroit more [something] than Chicago…” might refer to the number of points scored or, equally, the number of team fouls.

    At the same time, for me, there is a slight nuance of the size of the difference. “Over” simply says “x > y” and leaves me open to the possibility that the difference is orders of magnitude. “More than” implies that the difference is smaller, more manageable; the numbers are reasonably close.

    On the other (third?) hand, “over” might be somewhat ambiguous in certain contexts, and the reader/listener may as a result miss the fact that a comparison is being made. “More than” makes the existence of a comparison inescapable. Unfortunately, I can’t think of example right now…

    H.

  2. Douglas Murray says:

    While the two expressions are essentially equivalent, I’d say that “more than” is slightly more emphatic. Also, certain expressions must use one or the other: “more than enough” not “over enough,” or “over and above” not “more than and above.”

  3. MacDesigner says:

    I believe you are looking at a case of authors trying not to repeat themselves. Sports writers tend to do this with team names. They reference a team by the city name, then if they reference that team again they use the mascot. Neither term is more correct than the other, it’s just an accepted style.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    To all: thanks for your comments.

    Douglas: I was referring to the use of these phrases with numbers exclusively, not in other contexts, even if it’s with the same meaning.

    Henry: While I see what you mean about x > y in theory, in practice when someone uses “over” followed by a number, it is always as a way to say that the actual number, while greater, is reasonably close. IOW, one wouldn’t say “over 400 subscribers” if the actual number was 400,000, or would they?

    (OK, I’ve just spent 15 min on the phone with a Stats Canada representative doing a survey. Of course, in such a context, when you have a multiple choice question involving numbers, the last item is often “over NNN” — and the actual number can be orders of magnitude greater than NNN, the answer would still be “over NNN”. OTOH, survey designers usually offer choices that cover the normal range of possible answers, so it’s not likely that the answer will be orders of magnitude greater than NNN.)

    Besides, at some level “more than” also means just that — x > y. (The plain language equivalent of “>” is “greater than”, which is pretty much the same as “more than”, except that one is an adjective and the other one is an adverb.) So I am not sure I am convinced about your second “hand” :).

  5. Henry Neugass says:

    Another approach:

    Maybe “more than” simply implies countability more than “over”.

    I’m reminded of being berated by a perfectionist high school English teacher to appreciate the distinction between “fewer than” and “less than” — the first applicable only to countable items and the latter only to “bulk” differences. I’m guessing he would apply a similar distinction to the current case.

    Countability _may_ imply a smaller difference. Non-countability _may_ imply something about the technology or reflect on the degree of expertise used to do the counting. These nuances would certainly depend quite heavily on context.

    H.

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Countability is definitely an issue in French as well, although not in the same context (both “more than” and “over” are translated using “plus de” in French, which is countability-neutral).

    The problem is, of course, that I am referring to “more than” and “over” appearing in front of a number, which assumes countability in the first place :). I guess the difference is between “I have over 400 subscribers”, where “subscribers” are countable, and “I weigh over 100 pounds”, where my weight is not countable, but the number of pounds I weigh is countable :).

    Whether it would be preferrable to use “more than” with “400 subscribers” and “over” with “100 pounds” is probably debatable.

  7. Henry Neugass says:

    Right. Thank goodness for that. (It doesn’t make up for the trouble I have with noun gender in French, but it helps.)

    Your issue of distinguishing between countable number of pounds and and uncountable pounds is minor. If we thought for a while we could come up with a better example, but I don’t think that’s necessary. For our purposes, weight is sufficiently uncountable. Right?

    Compare a pair of phrases that would make my high-school teacher wince:

    1) I have less than 400 subscribers.
    2) I weigh fewer than 100 pounds.

    I hear the first form quite often among the local populace — and I often correct the offenders under my breath. (My teacher would probably be gratified.) I’ve noticed that non-native speakers of English make the second mistake quite often.

    Of course, I should have really used

    2) I weigh under 100 pounds.

    to be completely parallel, but I think the set of all three together gives us some useful comparisons.

    Bottom line, I think using “more than” with a number is technically the more correct usage. Using “over” with a number is slightly less correct, very common, and therefore accepted.

    Further: Is it possible that using “over” with a number might be interpreted as making the number slightly fuzzier, i.e. less like a countable? And using “more than” with an uncountable makes the quantity slightly more distinct, that is, more like a countable? Can we allow shades of grey?

    Now, a brief historical note: During the American Civil war, apparently it was quite common for under-aged boys to falsely swear, “I’m over 18″ so they could be in the army. The story goes that quite a few of them wrote the number “18” on a slip of paper and put it in the bottom of one of their shoes prior to arriving at the recruiting office, thus technically validating their oath.

    H.

  8. Pierre Igot says:

    I guess the core issue is that the distinction between “less than” and “fewer than” does not have an equivalent on the “+” side. The opposite is “more than” in both cases.

    On the “-” side, we have “less than/fewer than” and “under”. On the “+” side, we have “more than” and “over”. Does it mean that the countability issue somehow gets transposed and is used as a distinction between “more than” and “over”? Possibly.

    As for 2), I guess it’s a toss-up between “less than 100 pounds” and “under 100 pounds”. The problem with non-natives is that the distinction doesn’t necessarily exist in their language, much as it doesn’t exist for “more”. In French, for example, “less than” and “fewer than” are both translated using “moins de”. No countability issue in that language. Hence the mistake in French speakers.

    Shades of grey? Sure… Try telling that to a computational linguist, though :).

    Thanks for the anecdote about the Civil War. Would definitely not have worked in French! :-)

  9. Henry Neugass says:

    The lack of completeness, as you put it, provides opportunity for ambiguity, which can be used creatively or destructively. Fortunately this particular issue is not particularly dangerous.

    I think the expressions “less than 100 pounds” and “under 100 pounds” do have slightly different connotations. (By the way, the expression is “it’s a toss up” — I think.)

    I should note, “moins de” comes naturally to me, even with my limited French.

    I’m not qualified to say anything about the formal linguistics. But i will bring this up with my topologist neighbor, who is very enthusiastic about all the interesting places to look _between_ the integers.

  10. Pierre Igot says:

    Henry: Right you are about “toss-up” — except that additionally there is a dash between “toss” and “up”. I’ve fixed it. :-)

    I agree that ?less than 100 pounds? and ?under 100 pounds? probably have different connotations. We’re just not sure what exactly these connotations are :).

    (The French do manage to complicate the issue somewhat by also using “moins que/plus que” in some contexts. But that’s another issue… :))

    And to think that Microsoft Word claims to have a grammar checker. Does any one really think that Microsoft engineers have spent thousands of hours discussing all these finer points of grammar for each language?

  11. Henry Neugass says:

    I’ve spent a few minutes trying to figure out how “less than 100 pounds” differs from “under 100 pounds”. I can only come up with a vague feeling that the issue of countability applies — sort of– and that “less than” is slightly less felicitous than “under” in this particular case. Compare “less than 100 dollars” versus “under 100 dollars”. These are equal to my ear… but I can’t say exactly why.

    We’ve probably squeezed about as much as we can out of this issue, yes?

    Oh, ok, I’m guessing MS bought the grammer checker from some small company a while ago. (Do I recall credit given in earlier Word versions?) Probably in order to satisfy marketing needs, i.e., to check off another “includes a” box in a list that big corporate customers require, in turn mostly for ass-covering purposes.

    I expect that those same customers care very little how well the grammar checker actually works, and MS –abundantly and admirably expert at avoiding unnecessary work– has simply never visited the issue of the quality of the grammar checker.

    Another example of the tyranny of mass mediocrity. It’s disappointing, but by no means the worst fault in this product, in my opinion.

    H.

  12. Pierre Igot says:

    Agreed on all counts :).

  13. Alex Dering says:

    In journalism, the difference between “more than” and “over” is that “over” is four letters and a space smaller. Compare:

    Deaths in Iraq more than 500
    Deaths in Iraq over 500

    When you’re fitting a headline, that makes a great difference.

    This is not to say that there isn’t some ultra-specific difference that goes more than my head. I mean “over” my head.

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