The New York Times obituary last week for the former University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith ended with this anecdote:
Matt Doherty, a forward for Smith’s 1982 N.C.A.A. champions and later the head coach at North Carolina, told Sports Illustrated: “In a team meeting once, we were going over a trapping defense, and he referred to ‘the farthest point down the court.’ Then he stopped and said: ‘You know why I said “farthest,” not “furthest”? Because far — F-A-R — deals with distance.’ That’s an English lesson I got with the basketball team, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
The Smithean view is supported by the OED, which counsels (in language that has not been revised since 1895): “In standard English the form farther is usually preferred where the word is intended to be the comparative of far, while further is used where the notion of far is altogether absent; there is a large intermediate class of instances in which the choice between the two forms is arbitrary.” Commenting on this passage, H.W. Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), remarked, “That seems to be too strong a statement, or a statement of what might be a useful differentiation rather than of one actually developed or even developing.” He went on:
“The fact is surely that hardly anyone uses the two words for different occasions; most people prefer one or the other for all purposes, & the preference of the majority is for further; the most that should be said is perhaps that farther is not common except where distance is in question.” Fowler predicted that further “will become universal.”
“Universal” is a strong word, but, according to the Google Ngram Viewer chart below, even when distance is in question, further pulled ahead of farther in about 1830 and is now used five times more frequently. (Note that Ngram Viewer culls from print sources; in speech, the gap would be even more dramatic.)
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were surely referring to both figurative and literal distance when they named their bus “Furthur.” The spelling was later corrected (as seen next to Kesey in the photo below) and taken by Phil Lesh and Bob Weir as the name of one of their post-Grateful Dead bands. The 2003 documentary Go Further, described by IMDB as “Woody Harrelson and a group of friends take a road trip on a bio-fueled bus to demonstrate ways to be environmentally responsible and visit people who live by that principle,” used the same sort of pun, as does Ford’s ad campaign of the same name, introduced in 2012.
Yet the distinction has persisted, and not only in Dean Smith’s huddles. Theodore Bernstein wrote in Watch Your Language, (1958) “The general preference is to restrict ‘farther’ to ideas of physical distance and to use ‘further’ for everything else.” Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) notes, “In the best usage, farther refers to physical distances, further to figurative distances.” And The Little, Brown Handbook (2012) says, with no qualification, “Farther refers to additional distance … and further … refers to additional time, amount, or other abstract matters.”
As that suggests, in some prescriptivist quarters, the distinction, far from disappearing, has thrived. It is a favorite in clever illustrations such as this one:
I have to admit to having, like Bryan Garner, a soft spot for the distinction. In fact, I’d go even
further farther than Garner. I prefer farther even for “figurative” distances, as in the preceding sentence, and not infrequently have had to STET copy editors’ proposed furthers. One reason is that I feel reserving further for the nondistance sense—”further complications,” “further examples,” sentence-starting “Further,” and so on—helps retain the power of that useful word.
But I realize this is a losing cause, such is further’s formidable pull. Bobby Blue Bland recorded a song called “Farther Up the Road” in 1957. The song became a favorite of other blues singers, who, within a decade, had changed the crucial letter in its first word. Check out Eric Clapton’s version, and see if you can’t imagine good old H.W. Fowler listening in and tapping his toe:
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