NatChat: Parables, word usage and the argument for asking “why?”

There’s a parable I’ve heard in a few incarnations but the jist is always the same:

A woman is preparing a roast for someone (sometimes her husband, sometimes a daughter) and before putting the roast in the oven, she cuts about an inch off each side. She’s asked why she does this and explains “Well that’s how my mother taught me.” Her mother says the same when asked. Finally the grand (or great-grand) mother is called upon to solve the mystery. She says simply “a full roast never fit in the pan.”

I bring this up because a change has shaken the newspaper community – a change that has shocked and awed and just about ruined lives: You can now use “over” as well as “more than” when referencing quantities. As in, you can now say “Sally made over $25,000 in her first month working with the firm.”

I, like many in the journalism community, shuddered at the news thinking “another death in a great world of using precise language…”

But alas, I was simply cutting the ends off the roast.

Darren, one of the slot editors from central desk, went to the ACES conference this year where AP formally announced the change. Darren had the good fortune of access to a lexicographer.

But first! History: Noah Webster in the early 1800s created the first American dictionary, which at the time included paragraphs-long explanations with each word on its usage and arguments for and against alternative uses. After Webster died, his heirs sold the rights to the dictionary to the Merriam family, who then began publishing Merriam-Webster dictionaries. Time goes on and more words are added to what began with something like 10,000 words. To make room for more entries but keep the dictionary a manageable size, things like proper names and places, little-used words, illustrations and usage were removed. Nowadays, if you want to look up the usage of a word (similar to AP Stylebook entries) you have to check out Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (or similar.)

This is what the lexicographer referred to when Darren asked about the use of “over” to mean “more than” in reference to quantities. What did the entry say, you ask? Well…

"Over"

I think you gather now why I brought up the roast parable earlier.

All this time the disdain for the use of “over” was one man’s quibble back in the day. (However much I prefer the use of “more than,” I concede that few would be confused by the use of “over” in its place.)

You’re probably wondering “Yeah, and? This is a really long post justifying the use of ‘over.’”

The point is that as you continue on in your career – journalism or otherwise – you will encounter “the way things are done around here.” Sometimes the standard operating procedure has been time-tested and refined, sometimes it’s a collection of roasts. No matter what you’re doing or where you are, never be afraid to ask “why?” Why is it done that way? Why those people? Why that time? Why?
Always champion for the reader (or whoever it is you end up working for) and continually ask if something can be done in a better, more efficient, more clear, more accurate (maybe more fun) way. Even the smallest improvement is progress.

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