In the last few posts, we’ve been considering pairs of commonly confused words, such as alright vs. all right and anxious vs. eager. These pairs have been the cause of sometimes heated debate by language and usage experts. Other pairs, like farther and further, have their supporters, but the discussion is less acrimonious.
As with many words classified as “easily confused” by standard usage guides, these words have been used interchangeably over the years, in fact since the Middle English period when farther emerged as a variant of the older (Old English) word further (New Fowler’s 287). Both came to be used as the comparative form of far, though at times one or the other has been dominant. Both also can function as an adjective, and adverb, or a verb, though further has wider uses.
The traditional, or purist, rule states that when speaking of physical and measurable distances, farther or farthest is used; when speaking of figurative distance, metaphorical advancement, or an extension of time or degree, further or furthest is used (grammar.com). For instance, Garner (340) asserts that “in the best usage” this distinction should be maintained.
However, when applied to distance – whether spatial, temporal, or metaphorical – they still are interchangeable; in addition, there is evidence in contemporary publications of the use of farther for figurative distance (merriam-webster.com).
Further also has the meaning of “additional” (adjective form) or “additionally” (adverb form):
Adjective: I have no further questions. (grammarist.com)
Adverb: He was further annoyed by a second interruption. (yourdictionary.com)
Yet there is evidence of the use of farther to mean “additional.” Here is an example from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920): “He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his throat preparatory to farther revelations” (qtd in merriam-webster.com). But, as merriam-webster.com points out, this use is much less common now, so further is the preferred word choice in these situations for this meaning.
Moreover, further is capable of functioning as a sentence adverb as in the following example: Further, I’d like to address the issue of why these words are so confusing. (You would not write Farther. I’d like to address the issue of why these words are so confusing.)
As a verb, further is by far more common as in to further one’s career (merriam-webster.com). Another special use of further in the expression further and further: It always seemed possible to retreat further and further into the house to escape from intruders. (J.Fuller  qtd in New Fowler’s 286).
Despite the insistence and preference of usage experts on the “traditional” recommendations (farther for actual differences and further for figurative differences, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says “it is hard to see the difference. If we speak of a statement that is far from the truth, for example, it seems that we should allow the use of farther in a sentence such as Nothing could be farther from the truth. But Nothing could be further from the truth is so common that it has become a fixed expression” (178).
FYI: These traditional usage distinctions do not exist in British English (in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries, like Canada and Australia), “where further is preferred for all senses of the word and farther is rare” (grammarist.com).
Disinterested vs. uninterested
For our second pair of words often confused, we have two adjectives: disinterested which in standard usage means “impartial” and “without bias” and uninterested means “indifferent” or “unconcerned.”
Unlike farther/further, confusing this pair has been a cause of great controversy, with some language critics viewing it as a sign or ignorance and others correcting those who “misused” them (American Heritage Guide 145).
Ironically, when these words were first introduced, their meanings were the reverse, with disinterested originally meaning “lacking interest,” and uninterested meaning “unbiased.” (merriam-webster.com). In addition, over the years, many considered the words interchangeable, including famous lexicographers, such as Samuel Johnson in 1755 and Noah Webster (in 1828) who assigned them the same meanings. Moreover, confusing them was not recognized as a problem in the original 1926 Fowler’s usage guide, but by the 1870s and 1980s, “the use of disinterested to mean ‘uninterested’ had become a matter of fierce controversy” (New Fowler’s 218).
Confusing these two words or even using them interchangeably is understandable since, as noted by both New Fowler’s and grammarist.com, the prefixes dis- and un- both mean not, so “dis-interested would in a literal sense mean ‘not interested, uninterested,’” but because interested can also mean “not impartial,” dis-interested has the potential meaning of “impartial” (New Fowler’s 218).
New Fowler’s notes that because disinterested meaning “impartial, free from self-seeking” has been in unbroken use since 1659, it can be said to have had a longer period of continuous use (218); uninterested, on the other hand,meaning “not interested” or “indifferent” has been in regular use since 1771 (808).
However, uninterested is now being overtaken for this sense by disinterested, which both The American Heritage Guide (145) and Oxford Dictionaries (lexico.com) observe has seen widespread use, even by well-educated writers. Indeed, grammarist.com had trouble finding in 21st-century writing use of disinterest in the traditional usage sense of “impartial.”
John Algeo, in The Origins and Development of the English Language, summarizes the controversy and language
change in this way: “A large number of educated speakers and writers,
for whatever reason, object to disinterested in
the sense ‘uninterested, unconcerned’ – a
sense it previously had but lost for a while
– and want the word to have only the meaning ‘impartial, unprejudiced.’
The criticized use has nevertheless gained such ground that it has practically
driven out the other one. That change causes no harm to language as
communication. We have merely lost a synonym for impartial and gained one for indifferent” (qtd in Nordquist).
As with all language usage, you will be guided by your own sense of style as well as the style dictated by your circumstance, whether it is the in-house style of a publisher or employer or it is language of your narrator or character. Whatever language choice you made, you can be fairly certain that its usage has a varied and sometimes colorful history and will often support your usage decision. The difference between controversial or often confused words, like farther/further or disinterested/uninterested, is not always far.
(Material adapted from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage; The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style; Garner’s Modern American Usage; grammar.com; yourdictionary.com; lexico.com; merriam-webster.com on farther/further and on disinterested/uninterested; Richard Nordquist; grammarist.com on farther/further and on disinterested/uninterested.)