Which of these sentences sounds easier on the ear to you? 1) “I’m inching forwards, aiming farther, and heading towards the finishing line.” or 2) “I’m inching forward, aiming further, and heading toward the finishing line.”
If you’re British you probably leaned towards the first (although you might have preferred further to farther); if North American, you almost certainly chose the second.
The differences in usage between further and farther, forward and forwards, and toward and towards often come down to preference, largely determined by which side of the Atlantic you live on. But there are also some subtle differences in meaning that can affect which word you choose.
Take these five recent instances of further/farther in the media:
“Gen. Martin Dempsey said the U.S. has been preparing for further provocations or action from North Korea.” (USA Today). “The Red Sox were waiting to get the results of John Lackey’s MRI further interpreted.” (Boston Globe) “In Britain, the word semolina conjures up images of grim school dinners, but farther east it’s one of the staple ingredients of sweet and savoury cooking alike.” (The Guardian) “In the eyes of the federal government, urban Minnesota has just pushed a little farther into the countryside.” (Minnesota Public Radio). Clare Mann, describing her tour of an Italian volcano in the Telegraph, wrote that “Some visitors climbed farther down into the crater.”
In the first two sentences, further is the adjective or adverb of choice, meaning “to a greater extent, more”, or “to or at a more advanced point in space or time”. However, in the last three examples, in which there’s a sense of geographical distance or movement, the word farther doesn’t seem out of place, as it would in the first couple of sentences.
The words further and farther are virtually interchangeable, although the latter is often used when literal rather than figurative distance is implied. The OED states that “the form farthest is used especially with reference to physical distance, although furthest is preferred by many people even in this sense.” Fowler in his Modern English Usage, explains what he understood to be the surprising etymology of the two words: “The history of the two words appears to be that further is a comparative of fore and should, if it were to be held to its etymology, mean more advanced, and that farther is a newer variant of further, no more connected with far than further is, but affected in its form by the fact that further, having come to be used instead of the obsolete comparative of far (farrer), seemed to need a respelling that should assimilate it to far.”
During a Commons debate on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, British MP Caroline Lucas was recently quoted in The Guardian as saying: “As well as looking backwards, it is also about learning the lessons looking forwards.” In this case, forwards is clearly being used to signal the direction of the looking, especially in contrast to the opposite direction mentioned earlier in the sentence. Lucas might also have wanted to distinguish “looking forwards” in a directional sense from the sense of anticipating something positively, ie. “looking forward” to something.
Like further and farther, the distinction between forward and forwards is subtle or in some cases non-existent. According to the OED: “The present distinction in usage between forward and forwards is that the latter expresses a definite direction viewed in contrast with other directions. In some contexts either form may be used without perceptible difference of meaning; the following are examples in which only one of them can now be used: ‘The ratchet-wheel can move only forwards’; ‘the right side of the paper has the maker’s name reading forwards’; ‘if you move at all it must be forwards’; ‘my companion has gone forward’; ‘to bring a matter forward’; ‘from this time forward’. The usage of earlier periods, and of modern dialects, varies greatly from that of mod. standard English. In U.S. forward is now generally used, to the exclusion of forwards, which was stigmatized by Webster (1832) as ‘a corruption’.”
The British forwards might well be in decline, often dropping its final ‘s’ in favor of its American counterpart. A Google search on forwards returns references mostly to a particular type of sportsman — “an attacking player positioned near the front of a team in football, hockey, etc” (OED) — in its plural form.
“Cyprus is edging towards euro exit,” read a recent headline on the Reuters UK blog. “Andy Murray turns focus towards clay court season” was the first part of a Telegraph headline last week. Across the Atlantic, Suzy Menkes in the New York Times talked about “[Mrs. Thatcher’s] attitude toward the Falklands war against Argentina.”
As borne out by these examples, the difference between toward and towards is one simply of usage and preference, determined by whether you speak British or American English (with the latter favoring the ‘s’-less word, in keeping with its preference for the ‘s’-less forward). About toward and towards, Fowler wrote slightly abstrusely: “The -s form is the prevailing one, and the other tends to become literary on the one hand and provincial on the other.” Whether that means logically that American English is both more literary and more provincial than British English is probably best left for a separate discussion …