Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tip - Tricky Words

Further/Farther, Sit/Set, Were/Was, Lie/Lay, Between/Among, Flair/Flare.

As an independent author who has to take a huge part of the editing and proofing responsibilities into my own hands, I have to know the differences and usages between tricky word pairs such as the ones above. What I'd really like to do is take a few advanced English classes at the college level, but until I have the time and finances to do so, I have to self-teach myself with the tools I can find.

I also know that many writers have the same problems with the above (and other) word sets, so I'm going to try to explain in laymen's terms how to differentiate between them, as well as when to use each word in a pair. If you're like me, hearing terms such as subjunctive mood, subjunctive mood proper, conditional and concessive sentences, subordinate clauses, transitive, intransitive, etc. just throw your head in a spin. I've read explanations of word usage that used these terms and I felt like the person doing the explaining was just trying to show off their vast knowledge. I just want to smack them and say, "Speak English that I can understand, jackass!"

So, let me give this is a try and see if I can help you all figure out when to use each of the words in the above word pairs. I'll select one pair per week, so if you have other word sets you'd like to see added to this list, please post them in the comments so I can add them to the list. This week we're covering:

This one is easy once you get it. According to Grammar Girl, "The quick and dirty tip is to use "farther" for physical distance and "further" for metaphorical, or figurative, distance." In other words, when a physical object is moving away from you, it is moving farther away. Think of the word "far." When something is far away, it moves farther away if the distance grows greater between you and that object. You don't say something is fur away, do you? You say it's far away. Farther has the word far in it, and "far" relates to physical distance.

So, it is correct to say, "How much farther?" because you're referring to physical distance.

On the other hand, further is used figuratively/metaphorically. When someone becomes more withdrawn, we can say they have become further withdrawn, because we're not referring to a physical distance.

Examples (all of these are correct usage):

  • Sam drove farther down the road until he came to the red barn that marked where he needed to turn.
  • The farther he climbed, the worse his calf ached.
  • Further complications caused the doctor to make the decision to postpone surgery.
  • If he complains further about Ted's cooking, I'll shove those ribs down his throat.

At times, it's a bit tricky to know when to use further or farther. Once again, I defer to Grammar Girl who says it's sometimes hard to decide whether you're talking about physical distance or not. Take the following example from her website: "I'm further along in my book than you are in yours." Grammar Girl says you could think of it as a physical distance through the pages and use "farther," or as a figurative distance through the story and use "further."

In ambiguous cases like this, Grammar Girl says it doesn't matter which word you choose, although she does say, "If you can't decide which one to use, you're safer using further because farther has some restrictions."

Clear as crystal, right?

In summary, use farther in cases of physical distance (far). Use further when you're being figurative. And when in doubt because it's ambiguous whether the distance is physical or figurative, you're safer using further.

Next time, I'll tackle were vs. was.

Happy writing!


  1. wao nice pic and nice blog its realy good thanks for sharing.
    dissertation Writing | dissertation Writing Services

    1. You're welcome. I'm trying to work up my next set of writing tips, but I have a book coming out this weekend that's put a stop to almost everything else.