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
    You forgot over meaning "finished": "The party's over." ^_^ The point is, these things are obvious to native speakers to the extent that we don't even think about them as problems to solve. In your examples, it's obvious that "more than" is meant. – Robusto Mar 12 '17 at 18:31
  • Thank you for your comment. Why the first example cannot be "throughout 5 years"? – Ting Choe Mar 12 '17 at 18:38
  • @Robusto Please allow me to give you a small piece of advice. Saying something like "The point is, these things are obvious to native speakers to the extent that we don't even think about them as problems to solve" is disappointing and frustrating for EL learners. Those of us who answer questions here should make an effort to find a rule or an explanation to make things clear. I can only leave out idiomatic expressions for which there is not much explanation, but in all other cases there must be a way to get our ideas across. – Gustavson Mar 12 '17 at 18:55
  • @Gustavson: In the first place, mine was a comment, not an answer. There is a difference between those two terms, at least in English. In the second, pat or glib answers such as one usually finds here, with their neat little rules, are not really helpful because English is a sprawling, unkempt language that resists unnuanced interpretations. Your own answer to this question may be of some use to learners, but only up to a point. Complications will ensue that you have not prepared them for. – Robusto Mar 12 '17 at 20:09
  • @Robusto I understand you, and obvously know the difference between a comment and an assertion. However, I believe that helping learners even if it is only up to a point may be of use. I agree with you that we can't be categorical and should always allow room for exceptions, but providing some "general" rules -- subject to those exceptions -- can mean some progress for learners. That's all I meant with my comment. – Gustavson Mar 12 '17 at 20:20

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 Mar 12 '17 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 Mar 12 '17 at 20:26
  • @TingChoe I'll see if I can improve my answer to make it clearer. – Gustavson Mar 12 '17 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 Mar 12 '17 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 Mar 12 '17 at 23:34

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