Going further, going farther

Farther and further: is there a difference?

If there is, which word should you use and under which circumstances?

There is a quick and easy answer, and I’ll turn to Bryan Garner’s ever-informative Dictionary of Modern American Usage to explain:

Both are comparative degrees of far, but they have undergone differentiation. In the best usage, farther refers to physical distances, further to figurative distances (DMAU, 286).

AP agrees, providing this concise explanation:

Farther refers to physical distance…Further refers to an extension of time or degree (AP Stylebook, 106).

Here are simple examples showing the distinction:

Simon could hit the ball farther than any other player.
(This is literal distance: the distance of Simon’s hits can be measured.)

Burns took the concept of community service a step further, convincing each of his teammates to contribute at least one day of their time each month.
(This is figurative distance: the degree of service can’t be measured.)

The farther Samantha drove, the rougher the road became.
(Literal distance.)

When Grace thought about the situation further, she realized that the problem wasn’t hopeless. (Figurative distance.)

It’s important to note that both Garner (explicitly) and AP (implicitly) are referring to standard American English usage. Garner points out that in British English there’s a subtle distinction: further is used for both physical and figurative distance, but farther is properly used for physical distance only.

A scan of the OED’s entries for both farther and further shows more overlap in the past. But if the examples cited are any indication, the breach in meaning between these words was probably distinct by the middle of the 19th century.

Lest you worry that the OED might show the distinctions between farther and further differently because it’s a British source, both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster support Garner’s interpretation but also note overlaps among the less accepted meanings; Merriam-Webster goes a bit further in highlighting the contemporary distinctions and includes a usage note that agrees in substance with Garner.

It’s simple enough. Just keep that distinction in mind if you have any confusion with these words:

        • If you can actually measure the distance, use farther.
        • If it’s a conceptual distance only, use further.

(This topic was requested by Jan Cannon, MBA, PhD, career doctor, and author of Now What Do I Do? The Woman’s Guide to a New Career. Her career services are available at Cannon Career Center.)


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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6 Responses to Going further, going farther

  1. Thanks, Chris. Now on to the next problematic usage pair: bring and take.

  2. Pam Phillips says:

    I think the differentiation started to happen when American lexicographers noticed that “far” is a distance word, but “fur” isn’t.

    • Excellent point, Pam. I’d give that reasoning a fair hearing. Although the distinction could just be one of those natural divergences of dialect, without any solid logic at all.
      (On the flip side, the etymologies have occasional examples of far spelled ‘fur’ into the mid-18th century. It’s hard to be sure they’re correct usage, though: they might be the same kind of satirical hillbilly dialect spelling that we still sometimes see – meant with humorous intent.)

  3. A quick follow-up:
    Apparently, the Boston Globe follows a different style book. In the Sunday Globe’s ‘Ideas’ section this week (4/8/2012), they managed to use both “farther” and “further” in the opposite senses of what’s recommended here by AP. On a single page. You’ll find the uses on page K3, in two separate articles (the continuation of the Internet filtering article from page K1, and the little piece about surviving a nuclear bomb).

  4. Marg Cunningham says:

    Look further to buy a car that will go farther than this one. Why does Ford use the words ‘Go further’ as part of their logo?

    • Ford intends their ‘further’ to be less physical than metaphysical? ‘With a Ford, you’ll accomplish things outside the realm of normal possibilities?’

      (Good grief! I’m justifying a marketing slogan now. Not a place I ever thought I’d go when I started this blog. How revolting!)

      “The further you go, the farther you’ve gone,” sang Matthew Sweet. Or that’s how I remember the words, at least.

      Ours is not to reason why, ours is but…to observe how language is actually used, and make what small suggestions we can to help keep writing clear. If drawing a distinction between farther and further does something toward that end, then it was a good day.

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