ATGV: Farther vs. Further

I’ve had three people ask me about this so far. Here are abridged versions of their emails to me:

Other peeves of mine include complete confusion of “farther ” and “further,” and, of course, the complete abandonment of “who” and “whom,” especially among news commentators and other cultural icons.
–Herb

If you locate [10 items or fewer signs in supermarkets] I would appreciate it if you would share it with your audience. If I see it, I guess I will take a photo with my cell phone and send it to you. Despite the “what are you nuts?” glares I will receive from fellow customers, I will do almost anything to further your worthy cause! Speaking of further and farther…must be a handful of those examples around, too!
–Linda

I’m so heartened to see your blog evidence that good grammar is more than just appropriate punctuation, it’s also about appropriate syntax and vocabulary. So, a question that’s been bounced around our offices and homes of late : Further and farther.When at school it used to be that farther was used to mean distance and further was used to mean something that was metaphorically removed or distant…
Of late, “further” seems to be used for everything. Should “farther” be used more, or at all, or has language evolved such that “further” is applied generically to all such situations?
–Shiny Happy Person

To be as concise as possible, farther refers to literal distance, while further refers to metaphorical distance.

From the AP Stylebook:

Farther refers to physical distance: He walked farther into the woods. Further
refers to an extension of time or degree: She will look further into the
mystery
.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

Since the Middle English period many writers have used farther and further
interchangeably. According to a relatively recent rule, however, farther should
be reserved for physical distance and further for nonphysical, metaphorical
advancement….In many cases, however, the distinction is not easy to
draw.

If we speak of a statement that is far from the truth, for example, we
should also allow the use of farther in a sentence such as Nothing could be
farther from the truth
. But Nothing could be further from the truth is so well
established as to seem a fixed expression.

Now, that doesn’t seem to be correct to me. Nothing could be further from the truth is, in fact, correct. It isn’t physical distance that separates anything from the truth! Nothing could be farther from the truth is as incorrect as it is awkward. The first sentence was right all along; I don’t know why the dictionary authors wrote what they wrote. Nobody should ever use farther in that sentence.

Interestingly, this is what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

There is no historical basis for the notion that farther is of physical distance
and further of degree or quality.

Hmmm.

Time for examples!

As I watched episode after episode of MTV’s Next with my roommate, Omni, I felt myself getting further away from intellectual stimulation.

Further into the date, Shane offered Guy #3 a second date and he took the money to go on a date with Guy #5 instead!

The more chocolates that annoying guy crushed while blindfolded and dressed like Cupid, the further he got from being able to find the chocolate-covered cherry.

As that douchebag of a guy took his date farther from the Next Bus and farther into the golf course, she went further into her dickmatization and actually accepted a date with him.

And that’s that!

(I’ve never watched Next before. Basically, it’s a dating show where a guy or girl gets to date up to five people and yells “Next!” when he or she is done with the person. I felt like I was losing brain cells and becoming more promiscuous just from watching the damn show! That being said, you do get sucked in, and it was a fun way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Remember when MTV used to play music videos?)

Thanks, Herb, Linda and Shiny Happy Person.

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2 responses to “ATGV: Farther vs. Further

  1. MTV played music videos??!!?!

  2. I was going to write about this myself once upon a time. Looking for clear ammo I fired up the OED thinking that it would define, once and for all, the subtle differences between farther and further.

    According to Oxford, however, there isn’t much difference and the two can be used interchangeably.

    I’ll stick with using farther to measure physical distance and further to measure more abstract quantities though. Even if the distinction isn’t quite there in the most prescriptivist granddaddy of dictionaries, it’s still a distinction that’s well worth having in my opinion.

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