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October 22nd, 2003

Over or more than / classical or classic / issues or problems

by Barbara Wallraff

Burton M. Fine, of New York City, writes, “For a number of years I have decried what I consider to be an outrageous dumbing-down of the language. The source of my wrath is the never-ending use of expressions such as ‘They have been in business for over 40 years.’ I believe that the proper usage should be ‘They have been in business for more than 40 years.’ Is my grouchiness misplaced?”

Let’s put it this way: you’re not alone in your view, but I don’t share it. Language authorities have widely varying opinions about whether it’s OK to use “over” with a number. Some authorities say it’s perfectly OK. The AP Stylebook advises, “Let your ear be your guide” and gives an example of a sentence in which “more than” is better: “Their salaries went up more than $20 a week.” Other authorities say we should always use “more than” for entities, like people, that are always counted whole: “more than 40 people.” But, these authorities say, years can be subdivided into months and days, and dollars into cents, so “over” is fine with those words, along with all similar ones.

That is too fussy a distinction for my taste. And where did it come from anyway? Your blanket “rule,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, originated in 1877 with William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post. In a list of words Bryant sought to ban from his paper, he “simply forbade ‘over’ (and ‘above’) in this sense; he gave no reason.” If you don’t like “over 40,” you needn’t say or write it. But honestly? If you insist on getting worked up about something, there are plenty of better targets for your wrath.

Judy Levesque, of Windsor, Ontario, writes, “Increasingly I hear and read statements such as ‘Mary always looks fabulous in a classical black dress’ and ‘I'm a huge fan of the classic music of the 18th century.’ Many dictionaries list ‘classic’ as a synonym for ‘classical,’ but I always understood a clear distinction between the two. Am I completely off base in my thinking?”

No, you aren’t. The two words overlap some, but not that much. “Classic” tends to suggest timelessness, whereas “classical” usually has to do either with the ancient Greeks or Romans or with European music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Henry Bagish, of Santa Barbara, Calif., writes, “When, how and why did the term ‘issues’ replace ‘problems’? People apparently don’t have ‘problems’ any more; they now have ‘issues.’ How in the world did this change escape me? Why wasn’t I notified?”

I feel odd saying this, but please don’t worry—there are still plenty of problems to go around. “Issues” tend to be a particular kind of problem, namely “emotional or psychological difficulties,” according to an entry that was added to the Oxford English Dictionary Online last month. The earliest citation the dictionary gives for “issues” in this sense comes from The New York Times and is dated 1982.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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