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Furthest and farthest

Q From Randolph Knipp in Texas: When you wrote in the issue of 9 August, “Kudos came to those who could pick up the ones furthest away”, should the word not have been farthest?

A That word isn’t in my vocabulary. It’s likely that a speaker of American English, such as yourself, would prefer farthest, because that spelling has survived in the US longer than in British English, in which furthest is now almost universal in its various usages.

The same is true of the comparatives, farther and further.

Farther is historically a variant of further and it’s possible to argue that there’s no need for both. Further is the comparative of an ancestor of English forth, meaning outwards or onwards. Farther came into being in Middle English under the influence of an old comparative of far, which was replaced in time by further and farther.

This connection with far strongly influenced the view of scholars about the way that the words “ought” to be used: farther when a literal distance was meant and further for quantity or degree. The conventional view was summed up by Henry Bradley, who compiled the letter F in the Oxford English Dictionary. In the etymological note for farther he wrote:

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.

Oxford English Dictionary, First edition, 1897.

The position was even less clear than he supposed. Both versions had coexisted in the language happily for centuries with little or no distinction of sense between them. In 1926, Fowler disagreed with Bradley:

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.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H W Fowler, 1926.

The British position has polarised even more since. My search of a British newspaper database of the past twenty years finds that of the total uses of the two words, less than 2% are spelled farther.

Caveats are required: in American English, as I say, farther has remained more common than in British English; in both countries, when it appears, farther almost always refers to physical distances.

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