Closer than it appears

Farther vs. further

Now that The Associated Press has dropped the distinction between “over” and “more than” for quantities, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that other fine lines have been erased over the years. A prime candidate would be the distinction between “farther” and “further.”

“In the best usage, farther refers to physical distances, further to figurative distances,” Garner’s Modern American Usage says. The Associated Press Stylebook says, “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. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says the same, as does the Chicago Manual of Style, and so on.

If everyone agrees, why do so many writers have so much difficulty with this distinction?

Not to pick on a member of Congress, but this excerpt of a press release from Rep. John Campbell of California, which criticizes the proposed White House budget, offers a clue [emphasis added]:

This proposal, which increases taxes, spending, the number of welfare programs and the size of the deficit, moves farther and farther away from responsible budgeting and from the views of any Republican or moderate Democrat. Thankfully, it is a document that will go no further than its release.

None of those uses refers to physical distance: Welfare programs and deficits do not actually move, nor does the budget itself. But “farther” was used twice and “further” once.

One possibility is that the use of the word “move” prompted the image of physical distance. Anecdotal research indicates that, much of the time, a word like “move,” “rise,” or “fall” accompanies the use of “farther” when the distance is figurative. In other words, words that ordinarily indicate physical movement might trigger the desire to use “farther.”

Another possibility is that this is a simple lack of understanding of what “physical distance” means. If you and your partner split up, for example, you may be sitting next to each other but living in different worlds. That metaphysical distance might seem very physical to some people, and they might use “farther apart” to describe their relationship.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “farther” and “further” are “historically the same word, so it is not surprising that the two have been used more or less interchangeably.” In its page and a half (!) discussion, M-W says that the distinction took hold in the 20th century, though H.W. Fowler predicted in 1926 that “further would eventually replace farther altogether.”

M-W says that has not happened—yet—though “the British evidence in our files shows further more common than farther in all senses.” And Garner’s makes the case that the distinction has all but disappeared anyway: Both “farther” misused for figurative distances and “further” misused for physical distances are at Stage 4 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, in Garner’s own terminology a distinction observed only by “die-hard snoots.”

Let this useless distinction go no farther, and accept either “further” or “farther,” the way we (now) allow “over” and “more than.” Preserve the distinction when you recognize it, but don’t sweat the metaphysical.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.