The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion For the AP Stylebook, it’s ‘more than’ over

All of human history is the story of the battle between Grammar and Usage.

Usage is entropy. Usage is chaos. Usage demands that “aggravate” mean “annoy” in addition to “make worse.” Usage demands that you put commas where you don’t want them and remove them when you do want them. Usage is hunting the semicolon to extinction. Usage wants hashtags. Usage clusters around terms like YOLO and avoids terms like tergiversate. Usage trades in cliche. Usage is terrible.

And usage is winning.

I say this as what my friends lovingly refer to as a Grammar Nazi. If not an actual Grammar Nazi, then certainly a fairly active Grammar Collaborator. I am aware that there is a resistance, but I do not approve.

The thing about Grammar Nazism is that inevitably the longer you wax on about what a stickler you are for absolute grammatical correctness, the more likely it becomes that you are in the process of making a massive grammatical error yourself. I don’t know where mine is in this piece, but I know it’s there. It’s like misplacing a spider.

Last week, the AP Stylebook surrendered a few more inches of ground. “Over” is now a more than acceptable alternative to “more than,” when it comes to describing relative amounts. Over already gets used more than more than. I don’t know how to protest this, other than reversing the replacement. I am not more than this. I will never get more than this. Over a few people were saying it this way anyway, but that doesn’t make it right. If all your friends ran more than the edge of a cliff, would you join them? No!

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Whenever a change is made to the AP Stylebook, I curl up in the shape of a comma and emit loud cries.

You can change the way they wear pants these days, you can change the color of teal that’s preferred, you can change the Heimlich Maneuver again, but leave my grammar alone. Usage will always be fine. Usage is entropy, and entropy always wins. But our correctness is all we have.

One of the great joys in life, for people without many joys in life, is correcting other people’s grammar. We are overshadowed by perpetual rain clouds. We snip off dangling participles, splint split infinitives, reason with antecedents until they stop being unclear. Misplaced modifiers scuttle off at our approach. This kind of stickling is the joy of people who otherwise tend to walk around looking as if someone stuck a lemon in their mouths and they didn’t have a very good morning.

Javert-like, merciless, humorless, we pursue the grammatical malefactors across the years. “Everyone is singular!” we shout. “Everyone is not a ‘they.'”

“I care a lot about minor errors of spelling and grammar,” according to Ok Cupid’s stats, is actually a good predictor that you won’t be terribly religious. You have no room for other gods. All hail the split hair.

I understand that the AP stylebook was tired of, as Robinson Meyer put it at the Atlantic, standing athwart history shouting “more than.” But that is what the AP Stylebook is for. “Have you ever thought, Headmaster, that your standards might perhaps be a little out of date?” asks a character in Alan Bennett’s “40 Years On.” “Of course they’re out of date,” the headmaster replies. “Standards always are out of date. That is what makes them standards.”


Order and Chaos. Good and Evil. Grammar and Usage. Only one can win, and so far, it’s not looking good. They’ve gotten another one more than on us.