Farther vs. Further

By Mark Nichol

Is there any difference between farther and further? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary notes in a usage discussion that as an adverb, farther and further are used indiscriminately when literal or figurative distance is involved:

“How much farther do we have to go?”
“It’s just a mile further.”

“How much further do you want to take this argument?”
“I’ve taken it farther than I want to already.”

However, in adjectival form, a distinction has developed regarding use in these senses:

“My house is the farther of the two.”
“She needs no further introduction.”

But dictionaries are descriptive; they describe not how people should use language, but how they do use it. However, language maven (and therefore prescriptive) Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern English Usage, advises, “In the best usage, farther refers to physical distances, further to figurative distances,” and I agree: Popular usage demonstrates just that — popular usage — and the careful writer maintains distinctions that enrich the language. (Write eager when you mean eager, for example, and anxious when you mean anxious.)

Farthest and furthest, by extension, should maintain the same distinct meanings; use these forms in favor of the burdensome farthermost and furthermost. Furthering and furtherance are interchangeable noun forms that serve as synonyms for promotion or advocacy; there is no equivalent noun form for farther.

Further is also employed as a modifier, as in “Further, I see no reason to delay the proceedings”; furthermore is a variant. Farther, however, does not fit this role.

This Daily Writing Tips post from a former contributor has a somewhat different take; as always, consider what you read here (and there) a springboard (or two) for farther — I mean further — research to help you make up your mind about how you write.

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9 Responses to “Farther vs. Further”

  • Precise Edit

    Mark: Good discussion of these two words. I’ll throw in my two cents, which agree with your points, copied from “Which Word Do I Use?”

    These two words are very similar in meaning, and that is why they cause so much confusion. They both refer to extending or going beyond a certain point. Many writers use only one word for all meanings, but this mistake reveals the writer’s misunderstanding of both the word meanings and the concepts behind these two words.

    “Farther” refers specifically to a greater measurable distance. You can drive farther, see farther, throw a ball farther. Then you can go measure how much farther you drove, saw, etc. The error is to use “further,” which does not indicate a measurable distance.

    “Further” refers specifically to extending a concept, spending more time, or, basically, any type of extension or expansion that is not a measurable distance. This is the trickier word, so I’ll give you a few correct examples.

    “Let’s talk about your problems further.”
    “He made further progress on his dissertation.”
    “The boy made further noise after being scolded by the librarian.”

    Remember: “Farther” for measurable distance; “further” for everything else.

    (In this case, I suppose you can call me a prescriptivist, too. When we use words carefully, we improve our ability to communicate clearly.)

  • Warsaw Will

    For centuries both words were used interchangeably and it was the very popular usage you seem to look down on which appears to have pushed ‘further’ to the fore for non distance-related uses.

    The attempt to prescribe ‘farther’ for distance is a pretty modern phenomenon largely based, it would seem, on the whim of one Henry Bradley, an editor at the OED in 1891. It has been taken up mainly by American commentators, and is by no means universally accepted. Henry Fowler, for one, thought it was nonsense, and predicted that ‘farther’ would eventually disappear, and as far as BrE is concerned, his prediction seems largely to be coming true.

    You might well feel the distinction is a useful one, but that’s a style choice; let’s not pretend it has anything to do with ‘correctness’.

    ‘Careful writers’ might want to follow this artificial rule. Good writers don’t seem to always make such a distinction. (See MWDEU)

  • Capt. Colin Cameron-Tough

    How interesting. Further to descriptive common errors in using further, should one look farther? It’s like saying ‘in my opinion’ when ‘however’ suffices or that horrible ‘alleged’ when something is undeniably ‘factual.’ Anyway, one could, instead of further or farther, just use ‘however’ as most people who read English are imbeciles and have no grasp of silly typos.

  • Scott Snyder

    Eric Claptons “Further On Up the Road” will never sound the same to me again!

  • Mike Garrett

    As an Australian, we never say “farther” – here you will only ever hear “further.” In fact with our accent, the word “farther” is pronounced exactly the same as “father” (as in one’s dad). I expect that is the same with British pronunciation, too. So don’t expect this distinction to catch on here, it would be terribly confusing!

  • Jason

    Glad to have this cleared up. So ‘farther’ is a measurable distance & ‘further’ for everything else?
    What if time were used to measure the distance? Would the answer to the following question be the correct statement?

    > “Excuse me, could you tell me how much farther London is?”
    > “Certainly, just keep heading east for a further 40 minutes.”

    or should it be ‘farther 40 minutes’ as this is a measurable distance we are talking about, but the measurement is figurative depending upon how fast they travel.

  • Kara Murphy

    I’m an ESL teacher and I simplify this to my students by saying that “farther” refers to a place or a distance (e.g. His house is farther away than mine.) while “further” refers to movement and figurative (e.g. If you push the toy harder, it will go further than if you push it softly)

    Could be wrong, but it’s workin’ so far.

  • Henry

    The MW dictionary is right. I thought this nonsense about the distinction between “farther” and “further” was laid to rest by Fowler many many years ago. Garner is hardly an authority on anything, let alone grammar. He doesn’t understand the difference between “usage” (established practice) and anyone’s “use” of language.

  • amandachen

    > Garner is hardly an authority on anything, let alone grammar

    Wise words.

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