How High is a Year? What the descriptive and prescriptive dictionaries say.


Really, now, how high must you jump to clear a year? Every time I hear that commercial with Alex Trebek talking about how he’s represented some insurance company for “over” ten years, I want to scream. “Over” ten years, Alex? “Over?” How much taller did you have to make your ladder each year to keep your role as spokesperson?

Uh!

Now, I know that there are dictionaries out there that will say it’s fine to write or say “over” x-amount of years, but those are descriptive dictionaries. You know, those free ones you can use by just entering a word in your search engine. The cheaper ones in the bookstore. Those dictionaries not called New Oxford American Dictionary, the ones all editors use to correct everyone.

Descriptive dictionaries, which can be written by anyone, by the way and can even be called “Webster,” because the name isn’t copyrighted, list terms, their typical spellings and the current lexicon’s vernacular. They describe how words are used, but not necessarily how they are supposed to be used. In those dictionaries, you’ll see regimen and regime both meaning “a strict routine,” when nothing could be farther from the truth.

A prescriptive dictionary, like New Oxford American Dictionary, lists words, their etymologies (how they came to be), as well as their definitions and how they are supposed to be used. In there, you”ll see that a year is a construct that can be experienced, lived through, chopped up into fragments. We can’t do something over a year, but we can do something throughout a year, during a year, and even have done something a year ago.

Just not over or under. Only more or less. Why? Because of that fragmentation I alluded to earlier. Fragments can be counted, and when we count, we use terms like more or less, not over or under, because the latter two refer to height.

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