Sunday, January 2, 2022

A far, far better thing

 The next time the Associated Press Stylebook looks to clean the cobwebs in the attic, the editors might want to take another look at farther/further

The current entry, of long standing, restricts farther to physical distance, further to "extension of time or degree." This is one manifestation of editors' inevitable impulse to tidy up the language with minute distinctions invisible to most readers, or "dog whistle editing." 

Further and farther have been interchangeable for most of the history of English, as the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, the Oxford English DictionaryMerriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and other authorities have acknowledged. 

And thus have the people spoken. If you look up further in the current Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's New World College Dictionary, you will see one of its core meanings listed as farther. 

The American Heritage Dictionary has a usage note for farther, affirming the physical distance/abstract relations distinction. Significantly, the 74 percent of the Usage Panel's endorsement in 1987 had declined to 64 percent in 2009. Since the dictionary discontinued the Usage Panel in 2018, we are unable to see how much further erosion may have taken place. But Garner's Modern English Usage of 2016, while identifying the farther/further distinction as "punctilious usage," concedes in his Language-Change Index that further for physical distance is Ubiquitous but."

For the record, I dutifully enforced farther/further over four decades as a copy editor, though having done so does not leave me with a glow of professional pride. Time could have been spent on more significant matters. 

So AP Stylebook, how about chucking this one into the dustbin? 


  1. It reminds me of this anecdote from Humphrey Carpenter's biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, concerning corrections his publishers tried to make to The Lord of the Rings: "He was...infuriated by his first sight of the proofs, for he found that the printers had changed several of his spellings, altering dwarves to dwarfs, elvish to elfish, further to farther, and ('worst of all' said Tolkien) elvin to elfin. The printers were reproved; they said in self-defence that they had merely followed the dictionary spellings. (Similar 'corrections' to Tolkien's spellings were made in 1961 when Puffin Books issued The Hobbit as a paperback, and this time to Tolkien's distress the mistake was not discovered until the book had reached the shops.)"

    That said, regarding Tolkien's use of "Dwarves" (instead of "Dwarfs") he at one point confessed in a letter to his publisher that "I am afraid it is just a piece of private bad grammar, rather shocking in a philologist; but I shall have to go on with it."

  2. I take a hobbyist's interest in stuff like the purported distinction between farther and further, but for the life of me I can never keep straight which is supposed to mean what. On those occasions when the question arises, I have to look it up. It is so arbitrary and so disconnected from actual English that it simply won't stick in my head.

    Next topic: shall vs. will.