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On “farther” and “further”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 30, 2019.]

Q: I was taught that “farther” refers to a greater distance and “further” to a greater degree, but I see the two words used interchangeably all the time. Has the distinction been lost?

A: The words “farther” and “further” come from the same roots (both are comparative forms of “far”), and for most of their history they’ve been used interchangeably. Distinctions like the one you mention have been made in modern English, though they’re not as clear-cut as you might think.

Until recently, the conventional practice has been to use “farther” for purely physical distance, and “further” for metaphorical distance or for a greater degree or extent. But now “further” has taken over some of the territory once reserved for “farther.”

Here’s today’s usage in a nutshell: Either “farther” or “further” can be used for distance, whether the distance is physical or merely figurative, though only “further” is used when no idea of distance is involved. This is what Pat says in the fourth and most recent edition of her book Woe Is I:

FARTHER/ FURTHER. Use either one for distance, whether actual or metaphorical. “I’m walking no farther [or further] than this bench,” said Lumpy. “Nothing is farther [or further] from my mind.” But use only further if there’s no notion of distance. He refused to discuss it any further. “I have nothing further to say,” he added. The upshot is that if you’re in doubt, choose further.

Many standard dictionaries agree. This, for example, is from a usage note about “farther” and “further” in Merriam-Webster Online:

“As adverbs they continue to be used interchangeably whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved. But where there is no notion of distance, further is used: ‘our techniques can be further refined.’ ”

And this is from a usage note in Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online):

“Where the sense is ‘at, to, or by a greater distance,’ there is no difference in meaning, and both [further and farther] are equally correct. Further is a much commoner word, though, and is in addition used in various abstract and metaphorical contexts, for example referring to time, in which farther is unusual, e.g. without further delay; have you anything further to say?; we intend to stay a further two weeks.”

With that, we hope there are no further questions.

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