A Word, Please: When to use 'further' and 'farther'

Recently, someone asked my opinion on further and farther. She had read in an editing textbook that “it is not necessary to distinguish between further and farther these days,” and she asked, “Do you agree or do you still maintain the distinction?”

To me, the most interesting word in her question was neither further nor farther nor even the “these” in “these days.” The most interesting word was “agree.”

The questioner happened to be one of my copy editing students, which means she was asking me about editing. That’s not the same as someone asking at a cocktail party about how one “can” or “may” use further and farther.

The student was referring to the widely held belief that further and farther have two distinct jobs. “Farther,” my 2004 “Associated Press Stylebook” says, “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.’”

If AP were king, the discussion would end there. But AP is just a playbook for some publishing outlets. So this is really just one organization’s style recommendation.

“The Chicago Manual of Style,” which we follow in the copy editing class, doesn’t sound as sure of itself: “The traditional distinction is to use farther for physical distance … and further for figurative distance.”

So had she worded her question differently, I simply would have referred her to Chicago and her own interpretation of whether Chicago is advocating that editors follow this “traditional” distinction. But, no, she asked whether I agree.

“As an edit-bot,” I replied, “I find that my opinions are usually of no consequence. I do what style guides and dictionaries tell me. Only if those sources leave me unsure do I call on my own judgment.”

So when I’m editing, it doesn’t much matter what I think about further and farther. But when I must take a position on such matters, my research doesn’t end with just one or two style guides.

I start by checking at least two dictionaries. “Farther and further have been used more or less interchangeably throughout most of their history,” a usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says, “but currently they are showing signs of diverging.”

Merriam-Webster adds that while further often is used to refer to physical distance, “I walked further than I had ever walked before,” the word farther can’t pinch hit for further for those non-distance usages. For example, you couldn’t use farther in “I must further investigate” or as a sentence modifier in “Further, there is evidence of foul play.”

Still, this dictionary is saying that there’s more overlap between these words than AP and Chicago allow. And you can use either word in “Joe drove farther/further than he had the day before.”

Note that the dictionary said that “currently” the words are diverging, which seems to fly in the face of Chicago’s, saying that a distinction between the words is “traditional.”

For more on this, I open a few good usage guides, including “Garner’s Modern American Usage” and “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.” From there it gets really interesting: “Farther and further are historically the same word, so it is not surprising that the two have long been used more or less interchangeably,” “Merriam-Webster’s” usage guide says.

Both report that differentiation between the two words is a recent phenomenon and not a tradition that’s being tossed aside.

So as an editor, I give each word its own job. But when I’m off the clock, I have no choice but to agree that these words sometimes are interchangeable.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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