People are freaking out over an update to the AP Stylebook, the equivalent of canon law for journalists. AP Style now tells us that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable. It’s as if Big Brother has just suggested that what was true yesterday, is no longer true today.
Not all people are freaking out, of course. But a lot of people are, especially journalists, and also English majors. The people who love word craft are visibly upset. You can tell by tracking #ACES2014 on Twitter.
For the uninitiated, until this update, “more than” was used when referring to numbers. “Over” was appropriate when talking about the physical relationship of two objects.
On this issue, you could divide the world into three categories of people. There are those who believe that words are tools and that if you are going to craft something substantial you must use the right tool. You wouldn’t pound a screw in with a hammer, would you?
Then there are those who are aware of these nuanced differences, but they believe that words are flexible and democratic. I count myself in this category. While I prefer to build something eloquent, I don’t always get there. And I’m not above using a blunt object when I can’t find my drill.
Finally, there are a lot of people completely unaware or unmoved by this debate. They have a toolbox, they use it when they need it, and it gets the job done.
Whichever category you are in, it is impossible to not see this alteration of standards as a sign of the times.
“It is a license to cut corners,” Tim Stephens wrote in a lively conversation on my Facebook page. A former newspaperman, he’s now the deputy managing editor of CBSSports.com, as well as the current president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association. “It is an admission that there are no copy editors left to ‘fix’ it, and thus it is therefore OK to let slide, so the overworked ‘producers’ who now handle copy can focus on more essential tasks such as adding video or honing the SEO fields.”
That’s probably right. We have lowered the barriers to production and allowed more voices into our democratic spaces. As the volume of content available for consumption has grown, it seems logical that we have altered the precision with which we use our words.
The change in the AP Stylebook is merely an acknowledgment of that fact. And if you want to remain a relevant and effective influence, you cannot insist on enforcing standards that large numbers of people ignore or misunderstand.
And yet there will always be a need and an appreciation for finely crafted prose. In the cacophony that now exists, such words will rise over the noise.
The AP Stylebook is for everyone, not just the sophisticates. Western civilization won’t come to an end because of this change. If anything, getting rid of widely disregarded standards will make the remaining standards stronger.
Words are like wine. Consumption is up dramatically. Our options are greater than ever. There’s an entire supermarket aisle filled with choices. We find what we need. And every once in a while, we taste the great stuff.