May 26, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: farther/further & colloquialisms

Posted in colloquialism, farther and further at 6:49 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Farther or further, a review

A reader writes:

Have you done the “farther” – “further” thing?

We have, but we are about due for a refresher since this topic comes up a lot. <; The two words are distinct and shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

Simply put, farther refers to physical distance, something that can be measured.

How much farther do we have to go before we get home?

Mars is much farther away from earth than is the moon.

Further refers to figurative distance, to a degree or extent.

You are further along in achieving understanding of the root cause of this situation than I expected.

The grant proposal is out the door, and I don’t want to give it any further thought.

In British English, further can properly refer to both figurative and physical distance; however, farther refers only to literal (physical) distance. This hasn’t held true in the US, although we seem to be moving in that direction. My advice is subject to change over time; however, for the time being, I would go ahead and maintain the distinction. Let’s use farther for physical distance (The University Club is farther down Fifth Ave. than I thought) and further for figurative distance (You have a lot further to go before you become an expert in this field).

Tip 2: Can’t help but, colloquialisms

A reader writes:

“…Jack couldn’t help but think …”?!  How about a few words on that redundancy.  “Jack couldn’t help thinking”  or “Jack couldn’t but think”—one or the other, but not both.


Oh dear. I think that this is an example of a reader wanting a colloquialism to conform with the rules of grammar.  And of course, it doesn’t.

Let’s start with the basics: what is a colloquialism? A colloquialism is a word or phrase used in informal speech. It is sometimes associated with a particular location or region. It is, by nature, familiar and immediately understandable, but should be only be used informally and in conversation; colloquialisms have no place in formal or scientific writing. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a treasure trove of colloquial language depicted in Huck’s and his friends’ (and enemies’) conversations.

“We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed–only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all–that night, nor the next, nor the next.”

(Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884)

As I said, colloquialisms often don’t conform to standard grammatical rules. Part of the beauty and colorfulness of colloquial language is that it seems to have grown organically from the people speaking it.

So when the reader says, “Jack couldn’t help but think…,” we know that it means that Jack could not keep himself from thinking… The reader is correct that another way to say this is: “Jack couldn’t help thinking,” although I don’t think that “Jack couldn’t but think” would swing it. [NOTE:  “would swing it” is a colloquialism.] I  don’t see it as redundant. Just colorful, informal language.

Just don’t use it any manuscripts or grant proposals!

You know how I often talk about writing with simplicity and clarity? Let me close this week’s WLUT with some of Mark Twain’s thoughts on the subject:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

(Mark Twain (Samuel Clemons) in a letter to D. W. Bowser, March 1880)


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