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The lack of a strong gravitational pull has caused any water the moon may have had to leak out into space over the 4.6 billion years that it has been in existence.

I'd like to know the meaning of "over" in the sentence.

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    Did you check a dictionary? over: 13. during; through" ⇒ over the past ten years" – user3169 Apr 15 '16 at 5:07
  • I have already look it up in the dictionary but I simply don't understand it. I can't distinguish whether it means "during or more than or through" in the sentence posted above. – yethu Apr 15 '16 at 6:12
  • during or throughout, meaning at any point in time from the beginning to the end of those 4.6 million years. BTW, if you do some research, you should add that to your question. In this way, answers aren't just dictionary checks (which are off-topic). – user3169 Apr 15 '16 at 6:31
  • @yethu - If you looked it up in the dictionary, you should say so. This part of your comment should really be in your question, not in a comment: I can't distinguish whether it means "during or more than or through" in the sentence posted above. See this answer and our Details, please post for more information. The way you've worded this question, you've made it look like you didn't do any research. – J.R. Apr 15 '16 at 9:43
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    How could over possibly mean "more than" here?? How could water have been leaking into space for more than the 4.6 billion years that it has been in existence? How can anything do anything for longer than it has existed? Just because it's English doesn't mean that it's likely to ignore the basic rules of logic. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 15 '16 at 11:02
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The sentence reads correctly, to me, in idiomatic American English.

In that context, the use of the word "over" is a kind of short-hand for the more extended phrase "over the course of", meaning that a process or occurrence is happening continually while some amount of time passes.

Both of the synonyms "during" and "throughout" are appropriate interpretations, but "more than" is not appropriate.

If you drop either of the first two synonyms into the sentence in place of "over", they work, although some nuance of meaning or intent is lost or shifted.

The lack of a strong gravitational pull has caused any water the moon may have had to leak out into space during the 4.6 billion years that it has been in existence.

The lack of a strong gravitational pull has caused any water the moon may have had to leak out into space throughout the 4.6 billion years that it has been in existence.

The above examples are proper, with slightly different shadings to the meaning.

Using "more than" in place of "over" would suggest that the water has leaked out to a greater extent than the years have leaked out - it would be fairly nonsensical to a native speaker.

The lack of a strong gravitational pull has caused any water the moon may have had to leak out into space more than the 4.6 billion years that it has been in existence.

That doesn't work.

However, there's an unexplored variant that can include "more than", and be proper, but it would not replace "over". This:

The lack of a strong gravitational pull has caused any water the moon may have had to leak out into space over the more than 4 billion years that it has been in existence.

That usage still employs the word "over" in the same manner as your original example, but "more than" is used as a modifier of the following number, to suggest that there's some uncertainty about the exact duration, but there is at least a known minimum amount of time.

I, for one, can certainly see how the mixed uses demonstrated in that last example can lead to confusion. The structure of English is notoriously messy.

Note that the use of the "definite article" "the" between "over" and "4.6 billion" has a strong determinant effect on the interpretation of the word "over" in that sentence. Without the definite article, it would read as somewhat vague in its intent, and poorly constructed.

The lack of a strong gravitational pull has caused any water the moon may have had to leak out into space over 4.6 billion years that it has been in existence.

Omitting "the" is not really optional, and would identify the speaker as not being a native speaker, making its presence a shibboleth. (Or it may perhaps only show that they did not proof-read the sentence.) The difference is subtle, but important.

My background is that I am a native speaker of American English, born and raised in California, with some college, and I have a parent who is a published author. Other than that, I'm afraid I'm not well versed enough in technical grammar to cite a specific rule. However, substitution of synonyms can often clear up the intent of a word, by elimination.

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