March 29, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: further or farther & unmeasurable or immeasurable

Posted in farther and further, unmeasurable or immeasurable at 6:40 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Further or farther

A reader writes:

Thanks so much for inspiring me to finally spend a few seconds to figure out how to disable autocorrect on my Apple devices.  It’s been making me crazy and was so easy to fix!

A new question – “farther” vs. “further.” I was proofing a friend’s letter and pointed out that she had accidentally typed “father” instead of “farther.” I wanted to say that she really should be using “further,” but it’s just one of those instances where it “didn’t sound right,” and I couldn’t come up with a rule to back it up.  The context was comparing an organization’s past activities to present ones and saying that it “now goes much farther.”

Yes, turning off autocorrect brings a great peace of mind. While I appreciated its lesson on carefully proofreading to avoid sending email that references your ‘shortcakes’ when you wanted to talk about your ‘shortcoming,’ I feel a great sense of calm these days.

Regarding ‘further’ and ‘farther,’ we’ve talked about this before, but a reminder is a good idea. The difference between the two words is that ‘farther’ refers to a literal or physical distance—a distance you could actually measure with a ruler or a measure of some other kind, and ‘further’ refers to a metaphorical or figurative distance—the degree or the extent to which something occurs. Here are examples:

How much farther do we have to drive before we get there?

Before you talk any further, think about how your audience is going to react.

One way to remember the distinction is to remember that ‘farther’ comes from ‘far.’

So the reader’s instinct were correct. Since the context is unmeasurable time, then the word to use is ‘further.’

Some people say that this distinction is fading; others say the words have always been indistinguishable. And some still value the distinction. I fall into that group—I think that it is a useful difference, and I like the nuances here.

Tip 2: Unmeasurable or immeasurable

When I was writing the tip above and I came to the sentence,

Since the context is unmeasurable time, then the word to use is ‘further.’

my spellchecker indicated that unmeasurable was misspelled by underlining it with that red wavy line (thank you, Microsoft Word), and based on Word’s suggestion, I changed it to:

Since the context is immeasurable time, then the word to use is ‘further.’

But after staring at it for a few minutes and thinking about it for a while, I changed it back to ‘unmeasurable’ and changed Word’s dictionary to indicate that this is not a misspelling, and that gave me the idea for this second tip.

BONUS TIP: First, this is a good time to remind you to turn off Word’s grammar checker if you have it on. It is abysmal and completely lousy at grammar. And don’t be afraid to edit Word’s dictionary because, while it is a LOT better than the grammar checker, it doesn’t have everything right (and this is especially true for some of our scientific and medical terms). If you know you have the word spelled correctly, just add it to the dictionary and you won’t see the dreaded red line under that word again.  To add a word to the dictionary, just control click onto the word that is underlined, and scroll down to add in the dropdown menu that appears, and click on that. It’s that easy.

Adding the words to the dictionary will be to your benefit in the long run. Sometimes, when we write publications filled with scientific or medical terms, there are so many wavy red lines that we stop looking at them altogether. The result is often that we miss words that really are misspelled. If we add the scientific terms to the dictionary, they immediately become part of the permanent dictionary, and you will find that you will quickly get to the point at which the wavy read line really does indicate a misspelling, and you won’t ignore it any more.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand—why did I change ‘immeasurable’ back to ‘unmeasurable’?

First, contrary to Microsoft’s spellchecker, ‘unmeasurable’ is indeed a word. It means ‘incapable of being measured.’

Many dictionaries refer to ‘unmeasurable’ and immeasurable’ as synonyms. Some, and these are the ones I agree with, discern a subtle difference. ‘Unmeasurable’ refers to something that can’t be measured, and this could be due to any number of reasons. ‘Immeasurable’ also refers to something that can’t be measure, but for one reason, size. The immenseness or boundlessness of something makes it impossible to measure.  For example, the expanse of outer space would be ‘immeasurable.’

In the first tip, the reader was referring to the span of some years which I certainly would not consider boundless the way the universe is boundless; thus, ‘unmeasurable’ is the correct word to use there.


  1. Anonymous said,

    Just to confirm, is ‘immeasurable’ used for something that can’t be measured due to physical size?
    “Its power is unmeasurable.” I didn’t know unmeasurable was a word and I googled to confirm and came upon your website. Now I am still not sure if the usage was correct.

    • dlseltzer said,

      Immeasurable is used for something that cannot be measured due to its enormity or boundlessness. Unmeasurable is used when something cannot be measured for any number of reasons. In your example, “Its power is unmeasurable,” I would probably use immeasurable because power feels boundless.

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