The Grammarphobia Blog

We weren’t far from wrong

Q: In one of your responses last month, you told an inquirer that “your musings aren’t far from wrong.” If someone isn’t far from wrong, he must be close to wrong, which is the opposite of what you intended. Am I missing something?

A: Heavens to Betsy! We misspoke—or miswrote? At any rate, thank you for calling this to our attention.

What we meant to write was “your musings aren’t far wrong.” Instead, we conflated “not far wrong” and “far from wrong,” expressions that mean “almost correct” or “probably correct.”

And in the interest of full disclosure, we have to admit that we made the same mistake in an older entry, back in 2007. We’ve now corrected both of them.

The phrase “far from” has been used figuratively since the 16th century to indicate the unlikeness of something.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, from a 1534 English translate of a work by the Roman orator Cicero, uses the the phrase “ferre distaunt from” (“far distant from”).

The OED doesn’t have entries for the phrase “not far wrong” and the more recent “far from wrong.”

The earliest example that we could find for the older phrase is from A History of Irish Affairs (1782), by Francis Dobbs:

“Supposing this a fair calculation, and I apprehend it is not far wrong, the people by possibility can only send one hundred and twenty-eight members to Parliament.”

Although the OED has no entry for “not far wrong,” it crops up in several citations over the last century and a half:

1867, from Chambers’ Encyclopaedia: “Perhaps we shall not be far wrong if we regard Troglodytism as the primitive state of all … mankind.”

1895, from Harper’s Magazine: “We shall not go far wrong in crediting France with 60,000 men … whose principal object is to discourage the North African Arabs from a war of independence.”

1900, from the British Medical Journal: “Cullen is not far wrong in declaring that the chemiatrics of his day had become frivolous and hypothetical.”

1912, from the Dundee Courier: “In choosing a ‘Mills & Boon’ novel readers of fiction can never go very far wrong when in quest of genuine entertainment.”

1990, from Tom Cunliffe’s book Easy on the Helm: “If you approach at a similar angle to craft like your own, you won’t go far wrong.”

The earliest example  we’ve found for “far from wrong” is in a late-19th-century translation by Edward Oxenford of the lyrics of the Neapolitan song “Funiculì, Funiculà.”

Here’s an excerpt from Oxenford’s 1888 English version of the 1880 song, composed by Luigi Denza to the lyrics of Peppino Turco:

Some joyous song, some joyous song,
To set the air with music bravely ringing
Is far from wrong! Is far from wrong!

The erroneous “not far from wrong,” used in the same sense as “not far wrong” or “far from wrong,” first showed up in writing in the mid-19th century, as far as we can tell.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from an 1860 issue of the Working Farmer magazine:

“I think we are not far from wrong in saying, that we may fairly expect three-fourths of the nitrogenous matters of the oilcake back again in the manure.”

Here’s a recent example from the Oct. 29, 2015, issue of USA Today: “If it seems like every young person you see has a smartphone in their hand, you’re not far from wrong.”

Thanks for writing us about our error. With readers like you, we won’t go far wrong.

[Note: This item was updated on Sept. 19, 2016.]

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