Going the Distance: Further or Farther?

A medical editor who in a manuscript meeting asks, “Should we take this manuscript farther?” sparks the idea for this discussion on the grounds that farther suggests distance and further, “quantity or degree.”1

Once decided, the examples of variant use jump unexpectedly forward without my having to crack a book:

• Jack Shephard, spinal surgeon and Lost castaway, pauses amid the lush tropical foliage to ask his guide to Jacob’s lighthouse, “How much further, Hurley?”2 He’s a spine surgeon, not a brain surgeon, I think smugly, feeling confirmed in my theory that fictional characters are only as smart as the people who create them.
• The writer of a blurb on the Adventure Cycle Association itinerary3 for a guided bicycle trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains gets it right when describing what’s in store for riders after they reach Mabry Mill: “Approximately five miles farther down the road, you might want to take a detour of less than a mile off the parkway for a tour and a taste at the popular Chateau Morrisette winery.”
• I am sitting at an Italian restaurant celebrating the birthdays of 2 manuscript editors. Talking about my running schedule, I say that my weekly distance “will extend further.” I pause. “That would be farther.” I smile, lift my brows, and announce that I have selected further and farther for my blog entry.

But once I crack the dictionary and English-language usage books, my smugness at knowing the difference between the two dissolves, for the words “have been used more or less interchangeably throughout most of their history,” says the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which allots 11 lines to a discussion of their usage differences, adding that they “are showing signs of diverging.” First, noting that they are not used differently as adverbs “whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved,” the entry says they “diverge” when the meaning is not conveying distance. In that case, “further is used.” Furthermore, when used as a transitional adverb announcing that the sentence aims to advance a point, the entry says further is used, but farther is not. (However, further is usually changed to furthermore in JAMA in such instances.) Adjectivally, the usage entry continues, “Farther is taking over the meaning of distance.”

To put it in perspective, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage devotes 3 columns to the discussion that begins, “About every usage commentator in the 20th century … has had something to say about farther and further… as to how they should be used or how they seem to be used.”1 This explanation comes after first noting that few of the commentators have ventured little beyond a 1906 “pronouncement”:

Farther should be used to designate longitudinal distance; further to signify quantity or degree.

Webster’s says that farther and further “are historically the same word” and concludes that their interchangeable use is after all “not surprising.” To buttress the claim that they have the same origin and that they did not stem from the word far, the Webster’s entry reports that, of the two, further is older and “appears to have originated as the comparative form of a Germanic ancestor of the English forth,” whereas “farther originated in Middle English as a variant of further that was influenced by the comparative (spelled ferre) of far (then spelled fer) which it (and further) eventually replaced.”

The rest of the entry provides examples of usage, noting when grammatical usage for one eclipses the use by the other. In modern English, Webster’s says that further “used in the sense ‘additional’ … has taken over…” But farther is more frequently used adjectivally when “literal or figurative distance is involved.”

The Chicago Manual of Style4 and The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual5 echo the 1906 pronouncement and distinguish the two by distance and degree. However, swerving slightly, the seventh edition of Scientific Style and Format6 suggests that the use of farther as an adverb works for physical or nonphysical distance and suggests that further be reserved for use as a transitive verb: “His theory did little to further our knowledge of the oldest galaxies.”

After examining the language usage explanations of the 2 words, perhaps the commentators who have not ventured further than the 1906 pronouncement offer the best understood explanation. I could go farther, but I won’t. —Beverly Stewart, MSJ

1. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989.
2. Lighthouse. Lost. ABC television. February 23, 2010.
3. Adventure Cycling Association. Blue Ridge Bliss: tour itinerary. http://www.adventurecycling.org/tours/tourdetail.cfm?id=175&t=EV10&p=3. Accessed September 25, 2012.
4. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 15th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2003.
5. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.
6. Council of Science Editors. Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 7th ed. Reston, VA: Council of Science Editors in cooperation with Rockefeller University Press; 2006.

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