I’ve always thought I knew the difference between further and farther. You could further a discussion or further a career, but you had to go farther if you wanted to get anywhere.
That’s what I thought, but I’ve heard and seen the two used almost interchangeably, not only with new writers, but also with seasoned writers, highly educated speakers, and those less adept with the English language.
So I decided to see what Webster had to say. (I’m using the Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.) Webster, it seems, has several definitions for further. There’s the adverb that means in addition, moreover, or to a greater degree or extent. When further is used as a verb, it indicates to help forward or advance, and used as an adjective, the word indicates going or extending beyond.
But wait, isn’t that last one farther?
Sure enough, Webster says (right after the adverb and adjective definition) that you can also use farther in these cases.
So I looked up farther.
Farther, according to Webster, when used as an adverb indicates at a distance or a more advanced point. As an adjective it stands for more distant, remote. And farthest is at the greatest distance.
I’d still be confused (and maybe I still am), but there’s a note included with the farther definitions regarding usage. It seems further and farther have been used more or less interchangeably throughout most of history. BUT—and I think it’s this “but” that has influenced me—currently they’re showing signs of diverging, and when there’s no notion of distance further is used while farther is used to indicate distance. Back to further when we need to go no further.
So I’m right.
Or maybe I’m not.
Whether you use one or the other, even if it doesn’t sound right to me, according to Webster, you’re probably correct. Therefore, for all of those writers whose work I’ve critiqued and where I’ve stated the word further (or maybe it was farther) was incorrectly used—I apologize.
Moreover, I’ll take this discussion no further.