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.” 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, as in “He’s far from wrong,” which is another way of saying “He’s not far wrong.”

Both “far from wrong” and “not far wrong” mean, essentially, “close to right.” We apparently conflated the two expressions.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for the phrase “not far wrong,” but 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.”

And with readers like you, we’ll never go far wrong either.

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