From a correspondent in Germany, an e-mail query about there vs. over there in English. My correspondent reports that when he was in vocational college (in Germany) he had a teacher from Great Britain who explained to the class that the difference between the two expressions was that there was used for relatively short distances, over there for significantly longer distances.
She said you can ask someone over the phone, who lives in China “How’s the weather over there?”. But asking “How’s the weather there?” is, according to her, grammatically incorrect.
Oh lord, another invented “rule”, of a sort that linguabloggers (notably on Language Log) have been wrestling with for years. Teachers and amateur usageists are especially prone to come up with misguided advice — for reasons that are pretty clear.
First, some facts. There’s no distance condition on simple there, which is unmarked with respect to distance. There is nothing anomalous — much less ungrammatical — about asking How’s the weather there? on the phone to a friend in China. But the over in over there does supply some additional pragmatic content, which makes it odd for referring to short distances except in special circumstances. (One such circumstance: Suppose I am working on one side of the room and my kids are playing with one another on the other side, very noisily. I can then say: Do I have to come over there and separate you kids? The physical distance is short, but the social distance is more considerable, and effort would be involved in my crossing the room to separate the kids.)
Then, why the teacher probably concocted that nonsense about there not being usable for long distances: she wanted there and over there to be crisply distinguished in meaning, so that (except for some fuzziness as to what constitutes a short distance vs. a long one) one and only one of them is usable in any particular context. This is one case of what I’ve called One Right Way reasoning, the effect of which is to legislate against variation, in favor of complementary distribution.
If you think this way, then faced with two alternative expressions, it’s sufficient to find circumstances that clearly favor one of them — over there, in the case at hand — and then you’ll treat the other as available only in the complement of these circumstances.
Such reasoning leads to an enormous proliferation of minor-league zombie rules, beyond the collection of major-league zombies, the ones that figure in compilations of “rules that aren’t rules”.
Teachers, especially language teachers, are especially prone to reasoning this way and so to inventing new little zombie rules; their instincts are to give the students absolutely clear instructions on what expressions to use, so that they see variation as a defect in a language, a place where there’s no clear guidance for the student.