July 24, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Over vs more than, recuse

Posted in more than vs over, recuse at 9:31 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: More than or over

I know that I’ve written that language usage is evolving, and I’ve even used the words that are the subject of this tip as an example of such change. However, I’ve got to be honest with you. Using “over” when “more than” is correct makes me crazy, and, try as I might not to, I am still going to correct this in your work. Remember, your reviewer might be just as fussy as me.

The general rule, then, is that “more than” is used when referring to numbers (There are more than 60 players in that game.); “over” is not the same. For example, if I heard “There are over 60 players in that game,” I would interpret it as some of the players are more than 60 years old. “More than” seems to me to be more precise than “over.” So, for the most part, I follow this convention that “more than” is best used when referring to numbers—especially in formal writing.

But I will be flexible about this, to a point. After all, if I want to maintain my hip, modern image—okay, all of you who are laughing right now, stop it!

I also think it’s reasonable to go by sound. Which sounds better to your ear?

“She’s over 30” sounds fine to me but “she’s over 30 years old” does not. However, “She’s more than 30 years old” sounds right but “she is more than 30” does not.

“He’s over six feet tall.” okay “He’s more than six feet tall.” okay “He’s over six feet.” okay “He’s more than six feet.” not okay

These constructs, and the extent to which they are correct, depend, then. on sound as well as the formality of the writing or speaking.

Bill Walsh, a newspaper editor who wrote “Lapsing into a Comma” which I have not read and “The Elephants of Style” which I have read, makes a distinction between “more than” and “over” that also seems reasonable to me.

“I have argued that over and under actually make more sense than more than and less than when something that is measured in countable units is being discussed in fractions of units , or as more of a mass measurement or a rate:

She wants a big family-more than three children . (Fine . More than three is four or five or six or … )

My walk to work every day is more than three miles . (Four miles ? Well , no , it ‘ s more like 3 . 1 miles . I call that over three miles .)

At the height of the storm , the rainfall accumulated at more than one inch per hour . (Two inches ? Well , no , more like 1 . 3 inches . I call that over one inch .)”


Bill Walsh. The Elephants of Style : A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English. (McGraw-Hill, 2004). Page 79-80.

This makes sense to me, and I think that it is the way we interpret these terms, even if unconsciously.

By the way, “The Elephants of Style” is a terrific book and I recommend it with one caveat. He includes, at the end, something he calls, “A curmudgeon’s stylebook.” I would skip that as while not fraught with error, it has quite a few mistakes (at least according to this curmudgeon who is your curmudgeon).

Tip 2: Recuse

A reader writes:

I have been using the word “recuse” for quite some time as in “He had a conflict of interest so he had to recuse himself.” When my spell checker did not recognize the word I looked it up in the dictionary only to realize that it wasn’t there! Am I imagining things? Is this not a real word? Please help.

DLS: You should immediately stop using the dictionary that you are using. You are not nuts. Of course, recuse is a word. From mirriam-webster’s online dictionary

recuse. to disqualify (oneself) as judge in a particular case; broadly : to remove (oneself) from participation to avoid a conflict of interest verb re•cus•al noun

Google the word, and you’ll find tons of definitions and uses. Both Word and my email program mark it as incorrect, and I have no idea why. But I am curious and will see what I can find out.

READER: Thank god. It turns out that I’ve been using a vintage dictionary published in 1984!! I will stop using it immediately.

DLS: I could not find it in my 1960 Pocket Oxford Dictionary either so I decided to google it to determine its etymology. Interestingly, while google pulled up more than a million hits, it asked me: “Did you mean “rescue?” At any rate, this is what I found.

“Recuse” is derived from the Middle English word for “defy” or ‘reject” as well as from Latin and Old French (recusare and recuser, respectively), and a form of “recuse”—“recusant” was first used around 1387 to refer to an individual who defied the Church.

The word then fell out of favor for about 600 years. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates its modern usage back to 1959 when it began to be used as a legal term referring to a judge removing—at that time—himself from a court case due to conflict.

William Safire, himself, announced it’s newer use with its broader meaning on May 18, 1986, when he wrote this:


ON LANGUAGE; Recuse My Dust By WILLIAM SAFIRE May 18, 1986

“RED LEX ALERT! That dread signal is flashing through the world of lexicography. Writers of dictionaries are punching out the Nexis databank to find out why one word-missile got through the citation-slip defenses; editions on the press are being held up and remade to include the new verb or, more accurately, the rarely used old legal term in a new mood now flooding the American discourse. A news clerk pokes his head in my office to call out: ”Ed Meese has recused himself!” Sure enough, the tra…”

At this point, I would have had to pay $3.95 to the New York Times to read the rest of the article but this is enough to give you the idea. “Recuse” was reborn.

And this explains why it wasn’t in our 1960 or 1984 dictionaries.

William Safire seems to have been fascinated by the word as “recuse” stars in two more columns, which I have included below just because his work is a pleasure to read (the odd punctuation is Mr. Safire’s or at least that of a copy editor at the New York Times):


March 12, 1989

ON LANGUAGE; Recuse, J’accuse!


I HAVE ALWAYS RE-cused myself from anything to do with communications,” said Clayland Boyden Gray, President Bush’s legal counsel and chief ethics adviser. I had just asked him, with no apparent malice aforethought, for copies of his financial disclosure forms for the past three years, a request that puts some Government officials on the defensive.

Turned out he was chairman of the board of a half-billion-dollar communications corporation while he was on the Federal payroll. >Recusal – self-disqualification – was not enough; when New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth made known the outside income and responsibilities, Mr. Gray was forced to resign from the corporate board and amend his incomplete ethics forms.

To reassert his standing as Mr. Bush’s ”ethics czar” (counting the drug czar William J. Bennett, we already have a two-czar Administration), Mr. Gray promptly zapped the new Secretary of State, James A. Baker 3d, for failing to divest himself of stock in a bank holding company.

Mr. Baker, wrote Walter Pincus in The Washington Post, had been ”>recusing himself” from matters that might cause the appearance of conflict of interest, but counsel Gray’s position cited a Justice Department ruling ”that top Administration officials whose personal holdings would inevitably and predictably benefit from policies they help establish cannot simply >recuse themselves from involvement in those policies.”

We have here a verb with a small past and a big future. Three years ago in this space, in a piece entitled ”Recuse My Dust,” lexicographers were put on Red Lex Alert: >recuse, not in the dictionaries with its present meaning, was no nonce term.

Although the new Chambers English Dictionary fails to include the newer sense of this hot term, Webster’s New World, in its third edition, promptly came through: ”to disqualify or withdraw from a position of judging, as because of prejudice or personal interest.” The unabridged 1987 Random House II agreed: ”to withdraw from a position of judging so as to avoid any semblance of partiality or bias.”
Almost right, fellas, but not quite. The reflexive verb is listed there as both transitive (I recuse myself) and intransitive (I recuse), but an intransitive use in the current sense is hard to find. The Random House and New World definitions are sharply disputed by Bryan A. Garner, author of A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage and editor in chief of the Oxford Law Dictionary project.

”Pishposh!” says the lawyer Garner, at the University of Texas/Oxford Center for Legal Lexicography. (Lexies interject printably; I’m working on the derivation of >pishposh.) ”No judge would say, ‘I therefore recuse.’ Because >recuse is virtually always reflexive today, it cannot be used in the passive voice, unlike >disqualify. To say that a judge is >disqualified is perfectly idiomatic, but to say that he is >recused is not.”

Then what’s the difference between >recuse and >disqualify? ”>Disqualify might always be used in place of >recuse,” says Mr. Garner, ”but the reverse does not hold true. >Disqualify, the broader term, may be used of witnesses, for example, as well as of judges, whereas >recuse is applied only to someone who sits in judgment, usually judges or jurors.”

Let’s snoop around. ”The verb >recuse is not found in Black’s Law Dictionary,” says Nancy Slonim at the American Bar Association in Chicago. She took what she calls an informal poll of her associates (”Hey, guys, I got this reporter on the phone -any difference between >recuse and >disqualify?”) and reported, ”A judge would recuse him- or herself, but would be disqualified by an outside party.” Thus, in some legal minds, >recusal is done to oneself; >disqualification is done to one.

”The terms are now virtually interchangeable,” says Prof. Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr. of Yale Law School, who is one of the pioneers in the study of straight-arrowship in the law. But that distinction can still be made: ”>Recuse has the sense of ‘I exit’ as distinct from ‘I am thrown out.’ >Disqualify, on the other hand, has a more sinister or invidious implication, usually indicating what a party would do to someone else, rather than to oneself.”

Because there is less presumption of independence from contamination nowadays, both in judges and other officials, the invidious connotation of >disqualify is withering, and the word is used as a synonym for >recuse. ”I would say the most commonly used word now is >disqualify,” guesses Hazard, ”but another possibility is >withdraw.” Others include >remove (oneself) and >decline to sit.
The reflexive form of >recuse came roaring into the language around 1950. A computer search done by the lexicographer Garner shows only 38 cases in which the word appeared that way before then, and more than 3,000 cases since then. (The earliest citation was 1849, in Fourniquet v. Perkins. You still find people named Perkins.) In previous centuries, the verb >recuse, which dates back to 1387, meant ”to reject or object to a judge as prejudiced.” >Recusant was a noun meaning ”dissenter”; >recusancy was a state assumed by Roman Catholics from the 16th century on who refused to go to the Church of England.

But then the meaning changed direction, turning the refusal in on oneself. Carla Wheeler of the University of Texas, a student of both linguistics and the law, speculates that the verb >recuse as we use it now may be a back-formation from the adjective >recusant, which meant ”refusing to acknowledge authority”; it was a short step from that to ”refuse to exercise authority.”

You want my decision on whether to chuck out >recuse as legalese, too often confused with >excuse or >rescue, and to use >disqualify in all cases. Well, I’d like to, but you see, I own stock in >recuse. . . .


July 4, 2004


by William Safire

Some controversialists worry about recusal: when should judges recuse themselves from deciding cases, based on a conflict of interest or desire to avoid criticism, and when do they have an obligation to sit in judgment, as they are trained and paid to do?

In the quiet haven of grammatical, etymological and semantic scholarship that is this space, I worry about whether the verb recuse is still transitive — that is, if it transmits an action from subject to object and requires that object to achieve its meaning. For example, accuse is transitive; I (subject) accuse (transitive verb) you (object). But if you just say ”I accuse,” the sentence just hangs there, looking forlornly for an object to receive the action; you can’t get away with that unless you’re Emile Zola charging ubiquitously. You can, however, say, ”I accuse myself” — turning the action inward and using a selfish reflexive pronoun as the object.

So when a judge uses the transitive verb recuse, shouldn’t he (or she, as the case may be, and nobody says ”as the case may be” anymore) use a reflexive pronoun as the object? Shouldn’t it be ”I recuse myself” or ”She recused herself”?

That’s not what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in an explanation of why he decided not to disqualify himself in some case about sitting ducks. He wrote instead, ”I do not think it would be proper for me to recuse.” No object. As the learned counsel say: Hunh?

”It is probably correct that ‘recuse’ is a transitive verb,” he half-concedes as he argues his case in Scalia v. Safire (with me presiding in this, my courtroom, and not recusing myself), ”but it seems to me common and proper usage, with some transitive verbs, simply to omit the object that is clearly implied from the context. ‘Accept,’ for example, is a transitive verb; but when a friend invites you home to dinner, surely it is proper to say ‘I accept,’ rather than, ‘I accept the invitation.’ So also with ‘recuse.’ Whom or what else would a judge recuse, other than himself?”

Hold on — what’s with this ”probably correct” business? (I enjoy interrupting; it rattles the poor guy down at the bar in front of the bench.)

”I said that it is probably correct that ‘recuse’ is a transitive verb because I suspect that some verbs (perhaps ‘recuse’ among them) have evolved from purely transitive to transitive/intransitive by reason of the fact that the reflexive object (as in ‘I recuse myself,’ ‘he recuses himself’) was so obvious that it was regularly omitted.”

What precedent can you cite for that? Or to use the vernacular, gimme a f’rinstance.

”’Preen’ is perhaps an example. Webster’s Second shows it as transitive and intransitive; Noah Webster’s 1828 edition showed it as transitive only. It rings almost redundant in the modern ear to say ‘he was preening himself before the mirror.’ So, either because the reflexive object of the infinitive ‘to recuse’ is implied; or because ‘recuse’ has already acquired an intransitive meaning: ‘proper for me to recuse’ is perfectly O.K.”

Pretty loosey-goosey for a strict constructionist, it seems to me, though I have to admire a Supreme who clings to the majestically prescriptive Merriam-Webster’s Second Unabridged, which was succeeded but not replaced by the scandalously descriptive Third Unabridged in 1961. Sure enough, in the entry for preen in my copy of the Third, the lines about the intransitive usages have increased, including Virginia Woolf’s ”She preened, approving her adolescence.”

Whatever happened to ”original intent”? With the purist jurist evolving into Swingin’ Nino, who is left on the ramparts to refuse recuse without a reflexive object? Remanded to the public for more usage.



  1. Samatva said,

    Thank you for your “reasonable to go by sound” stance. I’m distressed when someone “corrects” others on this point, even when the correction is hurled at the television.

    The whole issue can be traced back to William Cullen Bryant *over* a hundred years ago.

    I am grateful that my mind does go into “grammer correction mode” when I am reading the likes of Thoreau or Thurber!



  2. Anonymous said,

    In your first paragraph, you say “Remember, your reviewer might be just as fussy as me.” Aaarrrgghh! You lost all credibility as an editor or linguist. Your reviewer might be just as fussy as I am. Then you use “it’s” for “its,” in the sentence “William Safire, himself, announced it’s newer use . . .” “Recuse” means to excuse oneself, so to say “I recuse myself” is redundant. For a judge to recuse implies that continuing to preside could create the appearance of impropriety, and the judge is not required to specify the circumstances, because that in itself could create suspicions of guilt, for instance, in a criminal case.

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