Over has two meaning;

: more than (a specified number or amount)
: throughout or during (a particular amount of time)

We can distinguish it in context but sometimes it's ambiguous for me.

For example

I lived there over 5 years.
It's been over a minute.

This kind of sentence is confusing for me. Above all, is it preposition or adverb?

If it's preposition, I copied two examples more from Merriam-Webster.

I've been waiting for over an hour.
happening/occurring/developing over a period of 20 years.

According to the dictionary, it means more than in first sentence but it means during in second sentence. How to know whether over means more than or during?

Plus, what if second sentence was happening/occurring/developing over 20 years.?


1 Answer 1


The ambiguity between "over" meaning "more than" and "over" meaning "during" can only arise where an adverbial of time is expected.

In a sentence like:

  • It's been over a minute (since he left).

we expect a noun or adjective phrase or an adverb of place after "be":

  • It's been a mess these days.
  • It's been noisy lately.
  • It's been there for a while.

Notice that adverbials of time can only come after the words or phrases in bold above. That means that "over a minute" in your sentence cannot be an adverbial of time, meaning "during a minute," but a noun phrase meaning "more than a minute."


I lived there over five years.

although we expect an adverbial of time after "I lived there," I don't think "over" usually collocates with the verb "live" to mean "during." In this case, we'd use "for" (or no preposition):

I lived there for five years.

With other verbs, like "extend," we may need to use both prepositions to indicate duration + "more than":

  • The war extended over thirty years (= during thirty years)
  • The war extended for thirty years (= during thirty years)
  • The war extended for over thirty years (= during more than thirty years)
  • Thank you for your answer. I'm afraid that I don't have the sense of expectation of adverbials of time. For example, I don't even understand the sentence(what follows the verb "be" cannot be an adverbial of time). Sometimes we expect an adverbial of time after be. Like, It's been a while since we met.
    – Ting Choe
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 20:20
  • @TingChoe "a while" is a noun phrase there, similar to "a long time." By adverbials of time I mean phrases that can specify the time of occurrence of the state or action described by the verb, like "We met long ago" or "We stayed there for a while."
    – Gustavson
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 20:26
  • @TingChoe I'll see if I can improve my answer to make it clearer.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 20:32
  • Hu.... I almost got your point. I'm still confused, though. I will read your answer whenever I'm confused between them. Thank you for explanation.
    – Ting Choe
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 21:11
  • 1
    @JasonC That was only to show that after "be" we will tend to find adverbials other than temporal ("there" is locative). Time adverbials will only appear afterwards.
    – Gustavson
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 23:34

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