Column: In this case, I do care

Mar. 22, 2014 @ 05:10 PM

A rose is a rose is a rose.

But a rose is not a daisy or an iris or a pansy.

More is not less, and over is not under.

At least not yet.

The Associated Press hasn’t changed its mind on how journalists should use those words, but I wonder whether it’s only a matter of time.

Last week the Associated Press changed one of its longstanding rules in the "AP Stylebook," a book that generally guides journalists when they are in doubt about how certain words or phrases should be used. And the change was met with howls of disgust and outrage – mine. But I wasn’t the only one howling.

The rule in question governed the use of “more than” versus “over” when talking about quantity or volume. The rule has been essentially that you use “more than” for things you can count, and you use “over” for things that can be measured but not counted. For instance, “more than 12 items,” and “over a quart.”

But last week AP said you don’t have to bother with the distinction anymore. Whatever works. It’s all good.

Why?

Because “it has become common usage.”

You know why it has become common usage? Because not enough people have bothered to learn what’s correct. That isn’t a good reason to lower your standards. It's like the language equivalent of grade inflation -- if no one can earn an A anymore, just lower the bar so what used to get a B grade is now worth an A.

One of the more amusing reactions to AP’s decision that “over” and “more than” were interchangeable came from a writer on Twitter: “More than my dead body!”

Once upon a time, when you wanted to express the idea that something didn’t matter to you, you said, “I couldn’t care less.”

But it has been years since I heard anyone say that. What they say now is, “I could care less.”

Why would anyone say that? If you “could care less,” it means you care. If you care, it bothers you. It makes no sense to say that if you mean that it doesn't bother you.

But because so many people now say it, it’s “common usage,” the same theory AP has used to say that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable.

And so it goes.

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass” said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” And that’s exactly how we get to this point.

There used to be a difference between the meanings of “composed” and “comprised.” But some people didn’t learn it, others couldn’t remember it, some of each didn’t bother to check before they used one of the words, and after a while the dictionary started listing both definitions as correct for each.

“Common usage” doesn’t make it right.

If enough people say blue and yellow are the same color, eventually the words for them will come to have the same meaning, but that will mean only that the words have lost their usefulness.

If we keep rounding the edges off of words because we let people who don’t bother to learn the correct definitions rewrite the definitions, all we will be left with eventually is, “Well, you knew what I meant.”