As one of the most commonly confused combinations of words in the English language, "farther" and "further" create a lot of confusion for both native and ESL learners alike. And for good reason!
The reason these words are often confused is that for the most part, they have been used interchangeably until only recently to denote spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance. In fact, if you look at the definition of "further" in Webster's Dictionary, "farther" is one of its definitions, making the distinction between the two even more confusing.
First, let's look at the definition of "farther":
- At or to a greater distance or more advanced point
- To a greater degree or extent
The easiest way to look at this is to see "farther" as most often referring to a literal distance. Here is an example of "farther" used in literature:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.
Further, on the other hand, is most often used in relation to a metaphorical distance rather than a literal one. However, you'll notice that the dictionary definition of "further" is in fact "farther". This shows why and how the two words are often confused and have been used interchangeably in literature:
- To a greater degree or extent.
- In addition; moreover
An example of "further" in literature is this quote:
To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.
It's also important to note that "Further" is the older word of the two but it wasn't until 1906, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, that writers were encouraged to distinguish "further" from "farther".
So, which should I use?
Most present-day editors and writers will use "farther" when denoting a physical or literal distance, and "further" when denoting a metaphorical distance. The point at which this becomes a problem is a situation like this: "I'm further/farther along in the book than you are."
Why is this a problem? Well, for starters, you could gauge the pages of a book as literal distance. Page 116 is literally farther along in the book and plot than page 111. In situations like this where the distance is ambiguous, many English language resources (the Oxford English Dictionary, Fowler's Modern English Usage to name a few) suggest that "farther" or "further" can be used.
Beyond this, if you are using British English, Garner's Modern English Usage notes that the British use both "further" and "farther" for physical distance. Use "further" if you're not sure.
Therefore, the simplest answer to the "farther" vs. "further" debate is to use "further" if you aren't sure if the distance is metaphorical or physical, since "further", according to its dictionary definition, covers both. However, if you are sure that the distance is literal rather than metaphorical, use "farther".