My mother asked about the difference between further and farther on my last visit to Nebraska, and honestly, I didn’t know the answer. Turns out that the difference and confusion between the two is more complicated than you might think.
According to Jane Mairs, Director of English language at Learning Publisher, this May 2013 Ask The Editor post explains that a lot of people (writers included) use these words incorrectly.
Mairs writes, “The question is complicated by the fact that both further and farther are sometimes used as adjectives and sometimes used as adverbs, and the part of speech helps determine their use.
If you want to be sure not to make a mistake, the simplest rules to follow are:
- Use farther only when you are referring to distance, literally or figuratively
- Use further only to mean “more”
Examples from the Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary:
- It’s farther away than I’d thought. (farther = at a greater distance, physically)
- She lives on the farther side of town. (farther = at a greater distance, physically)
- Nothing could be farther from the truth. (farther = at a greater distance, figuratively)
- Further research is needed. (further = more)
- I do not want anything further to do with this mess. (further = more)
If you follow this rule, you will not make a mistake, and no one will disagree with you.”
However Mairs explains that non-native English speakers, as well as natives, also use further as an adverb. Two examples, also from the Learner’s Dictionary:
- He lives further from the office than his boss. (further = at a greater distance)
- Their house is further down the street. (further = at a greater distance)
“It is this adverbial use of further that is most controversial. You can use the adverb further to refer to distance, as many speakers do, but be aware that some people may disagree with your choice of words.”
Mairs’ final comment about people disagreeing with your usage choice reminds me of an old joke about the many differences in grammar. It goes something like this: You could put a group of grammarians in a room regarding proper use and eventually have to send in food because they would still be arguing.