Is it 'Further' or 'Farther'?
Helping you navigate the linguistic road ahead
Everyone, no matter how erudite and well-schooled, has occasional doubts about certain words. We may not break out in flop sweat when forced to choose between exigent (“requiring immediate aid or action”) and exiguous (“inadequate”), but we tend to look up the words in question so as to not have the cold tendrils of lexical doubt wrapped around our neck. A quick trip to a dictionary and, presto, the problem is solved.
For most sets of commonly confused words a nice and simple ‘this word means X and that other word means Y’ sentence can be crafted. There are certain exceptions; pairs of confused words which appear to have a simple distinction, but when inspected more closely will soon have you questioning whether we can ever truly say that a word means anything. You know, like further and farther.
"Aaaargh! Is it further or is it farther?" has been a common-enough question over the past hundred-plus years that dozens of usage guides have had a crack at coming up with a simple answer. The most common quick answer is usually something along the lines of "farther is for physical distance and further is for figurative distance." As is often the case, however, simple rules run into the buzzsaw of actual usage.
It consisted of the plank platform on which he stood, a wooden house, half painted, with a dirty piazza (unroofed) in front, and a sign board hung on a slanting pole bearing the legend, "Hotel. P. Dusenheimer," a sawmill further down the stream, a blacksmith-shop, and a store, and three or four unpainted dwellings of the slab variety.
— Mark Twain, The Gilded Age, 1873
With the result of his hunting he purchased a hundred acres of land, further down the river, toward the more settled parts.
— Herman Melville, Israel Potter, 1855
The problem of distinguishing between further and farther is compounded by the fact that each of these words can be an adverb, adjective, or a verb, and has multiple meanings in some of these parts of speech. In certain cases you would do well to use one over the other, in other cases there is a degree of leeway, and in still others it doesn’t much matter which one you use. Welcome to English.
Further is the older of the two, with farther originating from it as a variant in Middle English. For much of their history the words have been used interchangeably. As adverbs, they still are interchangeable when applied to distance (of the spatial, temporal, and metaphorical varieties). Many usage guides will still recommend the aforementioned distinction of farther for literal distance and further for figurative, but there is enough recently published evidence of the figurative use of farther that it is difficult to say it is a mistake.
Go farther back in history and you find composers being equally subversive in clever, coded ways.
— Richard Morrison, The Times (London, Eng.), 22 Sept. 2017
But adverbial uses of further and farther are not confined to distance, and in another sense there are clearer distinctions between the words. Further has the meaning of “moreover,” or “additionally,” one that is not shared by farther. Farther does not work very well as a sentence adverb, and so it would sound rather awkward to begin a sentence with “Farther, I’d like to address the issue of why these words are so confusing.”
When using these words as adjectives there are similar degrees of overlap and distinction. While both words are defined as carrying the meaning of “additional,” this role has now been almost entirely taken over by further.
He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his throat preparatory to farther revelations.
— Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 1920
”Well,” he began, without any further greeting….
— Katherine Anne Porter, Ladies’ Home Journal, Aug. 1971
It is easy enough to find writers, such as Edith Wharton, who in the past century have used farther to mean “additional," but this use in sufficiently decreased of late that you are advised to choose further. However, when using an adjective to refer to distance, either literal or figurative, the words are once again interchangeable (although further is increasing in frequency).
…a show of artists simply at work, whether making expressionistic paintings, idiosyncratic functional constructions, casting the further shores of socially activist conceptualism….
— Jerry Saltz, New York, 20 Mar. 2017
His business specializes in shellfish caught off the Mediterranean coast, including oysters from the Camargue and mussels from Bouzigues in southern France, though fruits de mer from farther shores, like Brittany lobsters, can also be found.
— Rathe Tep, The New York Times, 22 Jul. 2018
Finally providing use with a degree of clarity, further is the undisputed winner in the verb bloodfest (you attempt to further your career by pretending to work harder than you actually do). This is not to say that farther hasn’t also been used as a verb, but it is now rare enough that you can sneer at anyone who uses it in this fashion (no you can’t - sneering at people for linguistic idiosyncrasies is a terrible thing to do … what kind of monster are you?).
We understand that people who are looking for usage guidance have a marked preference for single-sentence answers. In some cases it is not possible to distill hundreds of years of shifting usage into a few dozen words. If you come across a situation which the paragraphs above do not address, there is always the standard dodge given by usage guides when no clear answer is possible: let your ear guide you.