Friday, June 09, 2006

'Farther' or 'further'?

This is a tough question, but it is not beyond a cogent answer. Both forms derive from the same Old English word, furþor, the comparative form of the Old English word forþ, or 'forth.' Further is the older of the two modern forms; farther appeared in the early fourteenth century as a variant of further, under the influence of a different adjective, far.

At first blush, further seems to have more to recommend it: it is older; more widely heard, by most accounts, in both British and American English; and--arguably--the more natural-sounding form to native ears in both countries. Nevertheless, it seems farther has carved a semantic niche for itself, perhaps especially in American English. American Heritage 4 has this to say:
Farther and further have been used interchangeably by many writers since the Middle English period. According to a rule of relatively recent origin, however, farther should be reserved for physical distance and further for advancement along a nonphysical dimension.

This distinction appears to be a primarily American phenomenon, with considerably more proponents here than across the pond. A 1998 web-based entry from Random House's The Mavens' Word of the Day, for example, claims that further nowadays prevails in all senses in British English. Perhaps H. W. Fowler had a hand in this; he wrote in 1926, "The fact is surely that hardly anyone uses the two words for different occasions; most people prefer one or the other for all purposes, and the preference of the majority is for further." And, while he did note that farther seemed to occur more often in matters of distance than in other contexts, he ultimately went on to predict that further would come to be used in all senses.

The recent American revival of farther, of course, goes against Fowler's conception of the word; and yet, the irony is that the evidence he presented in his entry can be used as historical/ empirical support for this very practice. Because of his mention of farther as rather more common in questions of distance than elsewhere, I recommend the adoption of farther for matters of physical distance as a historically supported (i.e., not entirely 'artificial') usage, while at the same time calling for further where issues of time, quantity, or degree are concerned.

In reality, I suppose, in American English too one can say further in every instance without being considered slovenly or ignorant. If you do decide to observe the distinction, however, you should pay unfailing attention to one caveat: don't use farther for any senses not having to do with literal or metaphorical distance--as in, "Do you have any farther questions?"

What sane person, after all, would ask a question of someone who says things like that?


Blogger Minny said...

There's a brief discussion on the farther/further issue in "Finding Forrester", a film starring Sean Connery as the eponymous character.

10:29 AM  
Blogger WordzGuy said...

>What sane person, after all, would ask a question
>of someone who says things like that?

Maybe because the person who asks the question has some interesting and ussful information on a topic that the grammar pendant is less informed on?

Just a thought.

12:21 PM  

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