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.
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.)