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A Word, Please:

Grammar pollen

April 28, 2010|By June Casagrande

I have a confession to make. I’ve always been insensitive to allergy sufferers. Growing up in a depressed Florida suburb, it seemed that only the spoiled kids had allergies (“spoiled” meaning anyone who knew both their parents and didn’t drink milk purchased with food stamps because their mom needed all their cash for cigarettes and jug-shaped containers of wine).

These were the kids who got taken to doctors even when they weren’t doubled over in pain or bleeding to death. Spoiled brats.

So of course these kids were inclined to fuss over every little sniffle. Allergies were a choice — a luxury, really. And anyone who wanted to be rid of them just needed to man up.

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Then, one morning last year, I woke up sneezing. And I’ve been eating crow ever since. Allergies aren’t a choice (except, maybe among those prissy cat-hating types). Nor are they a weakness. Nor do they come from inhaling too little second-hand smoke. I was wrong.

Grammar is a lot like pollen. It likes to prove me wrong. And it’s none too gentle on my ego. For example, about 10 years ago, when I was already working as an editor, I learned that I’d been doing something wrong. I had been using the word “over” to mean “more than.” That is, writing “He is over 80 years old” instead of “He is more than 80 years old.” “Over” meant only that something was physically positioned above something else.

Humiliated, I immediately changed my ways, occasionally even delivering lectures on the subject to the writers whose work I edited. Then, years later, I opened a dictionary to the word “over” and saw this: “14. more than, or above, in degree, amount, number, etc.?.?.?.?a gift costing over five dollars.”

(Here’s where you say “gesundheit.”)

Over the years, I’ve learned and unlearned many such grammar “rules.” But I’ve also learned that there’s a grain of wisdom in all of them.

For example, it may not be wrong to say that my parents spent over $20 on medical care for their three children every year. But “more than” is often a better choice. After all, if “over” has a range of definitions but “more than” is more specific, the latter definitely reduces the chance you’ll confuse your reader.

That’s why, whenever I’m copy editing, I still change a lot of “overs” to “more thans” and “unders” to “less thans.” Not all of them, mind you. But whenever replacing them would make the sentence clearer, out they go.

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