Recently, I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak to two of Ms. O’ Malley’s 8th grade classes at Sycamore School in Indianapolis. The subject, as you might imagine, was grammar. Luckily, despite my tendency to wander into tangents when speaking to groups, we managed to talk about it a little bit.
The question came up as to the difference between the words “further” and “farther.” I gave them the same answer I’m going to give you, but since I am nothing if not a grammar nerd, I decided to research the distinction a bit more once I returned home.
The distinction between the two words evolved during the late 19th century upon the advice of an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Ironically, while we in America accepted the editor’s opinion, the majority of Brits did not. To this day, the two words are used interchangeably in Britain. (It’s worth noting that many dictionaries, British or otherwise, list the two words as interchangeable.)
Since we are in America, however, we can distinguish the two words from one another.
Here in the States, “farther” is used to indicate a physical, measurable distance. You can hit a baseball farther than someone else. You can run farther than the day before. Your destination can be farther up the road.
“Further,” on the other hand, is used to indicate improvement or metaphorical distance. If you volunteer at the Red Cross, for example, you are furthering the cause of healthcare. You might further your education by going to college. You could even further British-American solidarity by using the two words interchangeably. You get the picture.
To wrap it up, as long as you’re on this side of the Atlantic, here’s your grammar rule: “Farther” indicates physical, measurable distance. “Further” indicates metaphorical distance or improvement.