Further / Farther

Back away slowly, no sudden movements.

Dear Word Detective: My mom (age 91) froths at the mouth any time she hears someone use the word “further” where she thinks they should be using “farther.” Is this really a cardinal sin of grammar? I know that Dickens (my favorite go-to author when I’ve nothing else to read) uses “further” to mean “more distance/distant,” which seems a good enough authority for me, but it isn’t for her. Please further our knowledge by looking farther into this. — Lynne Foringer.

Oh heck, why not? We all have our little fits of self-destructive risk-taking. Some of us sky-dive, some of us patronize all-you-can-eat buffets, and some of us join Facebook and leave all the security settings at “Recommended.” And, about once a year, I tackle a usage question, although I ordinarily regard such expeditions with the same enthusiasm I feel about trimming my fingernails in a wood-chipper. Yet it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to heal family discord (a task for which I get to bill by the hour), so here goes.

I wish I could say that this question is just a random quirk or prejudice on your mother’s part, but the debate over “further” versus “farther” has been raging (or at least simmering) since the beginning of the 20th century. The first thing to note is that “further” and “farther” are actually the same word, two forms separated by spelling, a bit of time, and not much else. “Further” appeared in Old English as a comparative form of the word that became our modern English “forth.” “Farther” developed as a spelling variant of “further” in Middle English because people assumed that it was connected somehow to “far,” which it wasn’t. Neither “further” nor “farther” actually has any etymological connection to “far.”

For most of their history, “further” and “farther” were used interchangeably, as they still are by many people. Usage mavens abhor a vacuum, however, and in the early 20th century pronouncements began to appear, identifying a hitherto unknown distinction between the words and decreeing their proper usage. “Father” should be used, went the line, in cases where literal physical distance is involved (“The gas station is farther away than the school”), while “further” should be employed to denote extent or degree (“Further argument was useless”). The logic of this distinction is obscure, but it appears to have been based on viewing “farther” as a literal comparative form of “far” (to which, as we’ve seen, it has no actual connection) and “further” as a sort of dreamy, loosey-goosey figurative derivative of “farther.”

The “rule” about when to use “farther” versus “further” thus never made much sense, but it did make a notable difference in real-world usage of the words when pounded into millions of tiny noggins in elementary schools. Many folks are walking around today firmly convinced that a violation of this edict is one of the lesser signs of the apocalypse. But adherence to the edict is fading in actual usage.

Back in 1926, H.W. Fowler, in his landmark Modern English Usage, ventured that “further” would eventually completely squeeze out “farther” in popular usage. This seems to be happening, with “further” now being commonly employed even in contexts where literal physical distance is clearly meant (“About 5 miles further, on the port side is Captiva Pass,” News-Press (Fla.) 11/7/10), although “farther” is still preferred by purists. As a sentence adverb, “further” rules the roost (“Further, I find your impertinence offensive”) and “farther” in this role would strike many people as simply wrong. “Further” is also the standard in adjectival uses to mean “additional” (“The spokesman declined further comment but said more information would be forthcoming,” Baltimore Sun).

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