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"Further" Versus "Farther"

Today's topic is "further" versus "farther."

By
Mignon Fogarty,,
April 22, 2010
Episode #218

 

Today's topic is "further" versus "farther."

Almost every week someone asks me to explain the difference between “further” and “farther.” Three years ago when I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show, a production assistant grabbed me backstage while my head was still spinning and begged me to give her a way to remember which word to use. So today, I'll try to help you with this continuing conundrum.

"Further" Versus "Farther"

The quick and dirty tip is to use “farther” for physical distance and “further” for metaphorical, or figurative, distance. It's easy to remember because “farther” has the word “far” in it, and“far” obviously relates to physical distance.

For example, imagine Squiggly and Aardvark are flying to a galaxy far, far away, but Squiggly gets bored and starts mercilessly bugging Aardvark. "How much farther?'" he keeps asking in despair.”

Did you hear that? Squiggly used “farther” because he was asking about physical distance.

If Aardvark gets frustrated with Squiggly, which he surely will, he could respond, “If you complain further, I'm going to shoot you out the airlock.”

Aardvark used “further” because he isn't talking about physical distance, he's talking about a figurative distance: the extent of Squiggly's complaining.

More "Further" Versus "Farther" Tips

If you can't decide which one to use, you're safer using further because farther has some restrictions.

Sometimes the quick and dirty tip doesn't work because it's hard to decide whether you're talking about physical distance. For example, Lisa asked about the sentence “I'm further along in my book than you are in yours.” You could think of it as a physical distance through the pages and use “farther,” or as a figurative distance through the story and use “further.”

And what if you stop someone in the middle of a sentence to interject something? Do you say “before we go any further,” or “before we go any farther”?

The good news is that in ambiguous cases it doesn't matter which word you choose. Although careful writers will try to stick with the distinction between “further” and “farther,” the Oxford English Dictionary, Fowler's Modern English Usage, and a number of other sources say that, in most cases, it's fine to use “further” and “farther” interchangeably, especially when the distinction isn't clear. People have been using them interchangeably for hundreds of years, and a few experts don't even follow the distinction. For example, Garner's Modern American Usage notes that in British English, although it's more common for speakers to use “farther” for physical distance, they will regularly use either “further” or “farther” for figurative distance (1).

Next: How to Use Furthermore

How to Use "Furthermore"

It is important to remember that “farther” has a tie to physical distance and can't be used to mean “moreover” or “in addition.”

We're nearly out of fuel. Further, there's an asteroid belt ahead.

A trick I use is to write “furthermore” when I mean “in addition.”

Furthermore, I hope you locked the door when we left.

“Furthermore” is different enough from “further” to keep me from confusing it with “farther.” 

Quick and Dirty Tip

The quick and dirty tip is that “farther” relates to physical distance and “further”  relates to figurative distance. If you can't decide which one to use, you're safer using “further” because “farther” has some restrictions, and if you tend to get confused, try using “furthermore” instead of “further.”

Download the Chapter on "Dirty Words" From Grammar Girl's Book

"Further" versus "farther" is just one of the many confusing word choices that Mignon Fogarty covers in the "Dirty Words" chapter of her book, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. You can download the chapter by clicking here.

You can order a copy of the paperback edition from any of these online retailers or pick one up at your favorite bookstore:

Amazon   Barnes and Noble

Powell’s   Borders

The book is also available in an e-book edition.  You can download a copy wherever e-books are sold.

History

Finally, if you're interested in the history of usage, “further” is the older word and according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (2), it was 1906 when the first usage guide called on writers to make a distinction between “further” and “farther.”

References

1. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 346.

2. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, p. 430.

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