A Way With Words: Going the Distance – Our Write Side

Tomato, tomahto… potato, potahto… farther, further… It is not simply a disagreement about pronunciation, there is a difference in definition.

Confusion with words and phrases such as farther and further, fewer and less than, and over and more than, is the difference in dimensional context and abstract concepts.

Farther vs Further

“Farther” should be used to indicate actual distance, and “further” to refer to progress, or metaphorical distance.

“He has to drive farther to attend class. Once he completes the course, he does not plan to go any further with his training.”

Using these rules, the following sentences would be incorrect:

“Margie made her way further down the trail, silently moving through the undergrowth.”

“The farther into this life that I journey, the less in focus my past becomes.”

Fewer vs Less

When using “fewer,” and “less” also think in terms of measurable amounts, and undetermined quantities – real versus abstract.

If you are referring to an item that can be counted, use “fewer.”

“There are fewer books in my ‘to-read’ pile.”

When writing about a conceptual idea, something that can’t feasibly be counted, use “less.”

“After the hurricane, it seemed like there was less sand on the beach.”

As it is with many rules, there are exceptions to this one.

Time, weight, distance, and money are treated as singular nouns, so use “less” regardless of their measurability.

“The connector road is two hours shorter than the interstate.”

“It will take two hours less to drive to Oakland on the new connector road.”

More than vs. Over

With these two comparisons, it is a spatial versus numerical reference.

“More than” is used when indicating a number, and “over” is used when indicating direction.

“There were more than a dozen seagulls wandering the beach.”

“The seagulls were hovering over us all day.”

At least, that is what I was taught “back in the day,” by Mrs. Wiggington, my high school English teacher.

According to many style guides, both of the following sentences would be grammatically correct.

“I ate more than half of the cheesecake in one sitting.”

“I ate over half of the cheesecake in one sitting.”

In 2014, Associated Press editors, the keepers of the Writing Rules, came out with a statement saying that each phrase could be used interchangeably.

I am still old school, but I also prefer the Oxford comma, and reject the idea of the acceptable use “literally” to mean “figuratively.”