Farther vs. Further

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

Farther adv. 1. to  a greater (measurable) physical distance.

Further adj., adv. 1. to a greater extent, to a greater figurative distance.

Words in the Wild: She wanted to gather further knowledge of the bats’ ecological niche, but she couldn’t make herself go any farther into the cave.

According to Merriam-Webster’s farther and further have been used interchangeably up until relatively recently, but have begun to be used separately to denote two different kinds of distance. You will come across documents that use just one word or the other, or that use the two quite willy-nilly, but there is a definite trend among language authorities towards using the words as they are defined above.

If you decide not to distinguish between the two words, I do recommend that you choose one of them and stick with it for consistency. And if you’re trying to decide which to choose I suggest that you opt for further since to many people’s ears farther will sound distinctly strange when applied to figurative descriptions of distance. Listen, for instance, to how farther sounds in these sentences:

  • Any farther inquiries must be addressed to the customer-service department.
  • He was farther encouraged by his third place finish.

If you’re still trying to decide how to proceed, here are the positions of several authoritative sources on this question:

  • The OED says that, as above, farther is usually reserved for use as the comparative of far (ie. measureable distance) while further is applied to figurative, unmeasurable distances or extents like time or metaphorical distance.
  • CanOx says that farther is simply a variant spelling of further.
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage reinforces the definitions as they appear above, but also speculates that farther will become less and less common until further becomes the universally applied term.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style supports the distinction of meaning as set out in the above definitions.
  • And Merriam-Webster’s also agrees with the above definitions.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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