The student was referring to the widely held belief that further and farther have two distinct jobs. “Farther,” my 2004 “Associated Press Stylebook” says, “refers to physical distance: ‘He walked farther into the woods.’ “Further” refers to an extension of time or degree: ‘She will look further into the mystery.’”
If AP were king, the discussion would end there. But AP is just a playbook for some publishing outlets. So this is really just one organization’s style recommendation.
“The Chicago Manual of Style,” which we follow in the copy editing class, doesn’t sound as sure of itself: “The traditional distinction is to use farther for physical distance … and further for figurative distance.”
So had she worded her question differently, I simply would have referred her to Chicago and her own interpretation of whether Chicago is advocating that editors follow this “traditional” distinction. But, no, she asked whether I agree.
“As an edit-bot,” I replied, “I find that my opinions are usually of no consequence. I do what style guides and dictionaries tell me. Only if those sources leave me unsure do I call on my own judgment.”
So when I’m editing, it doesn’t much matter what I think about further and farther. But when I must take a position on such matters, my research doesn’t end with just one or two style guides.
I start by checking at least two dictionaries. “Farther and further have been used more or less interchangeably throughout most of their history,” a usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says, “but currently they are showing signs of diverging.”