Why words matter


I wandered into a Facebook argument the other day about the Associated Press Style Book authorities having loosened the long-held prohibition against the word "over" to mean "more than."

Argue among yourselves over whether the more relaxed but less specific "over" should be permitted. I jumped into the Facebook debate at the point where one of the participants asked "Why does anyone even care about this?"

It was a useful moment. It reminded me of the good fortune of having once been an impressionable young journalist lapping up edicts from more experienced writers and editors. These lessons sometimes arrived laden with literalism, but mostly they were useful. I was taught, decades ago, to be wary of adverbs. I still am.

We were advised to think about language. With that thinking came sensitivity; with sensitivity came the ability to take pleasure in nuance and clarity and, most of all, logic. This is why some of us balk when a prevalent bit of linguistic sloppiness carries nonstandard usage across the finish line. As far as I'm concerned, "regardless" and "irregardless" cannot both be correct, nor can "literally" mean "figuratively." Oh well. They're all supposedly acceptable now.

We learned the mechanics of written language and some of us tried for the poetry of it, too. We developed an ear for a well-turned metaphor and came to spot the garishness of a poorly chosen one.

We thought about these things when we were reading and writing, and came to admire those rare smiths who can deliver precision encased in something fresh. I follow an Instagram guy who posts pictures of dogs with accompanying, often hilarious, street-language text. When he wants to say "wait a minute," it's "wayment." That slays me. And when I first came across Bilbo Baggins feeling "like butter scraped over too much bread," all I could do was sigh with delight and recognition.

All of this is to say that concern for dictionaries and thesauri and Associated Press usage pronouncements makes life richer for some of us.

I tend to prefer "more than" to "over" in most cases, but what I really care about is the caring itself.

Over and out.