Further and Farther: What’s the Difference?

Before I became an editor, whether to use “farther” or “further” was the sort of question I would never have looked up for fear that it would have an annoying, complicated answer requiring a thorough knowledge of things like nominal adjectives or gerunds.  Now it’s my job to look these questions up, and I’m happy to say that this is one issue that is gratifyingly easy to resolve.  Farther refers to literal distance.  Further refers to figurative distance.  You see?  That wasn’t so bad.

For those who enjoy tracking down more information, this rule is enshrined in both Strunk and White (fourth ed., p. 46) and The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., p. 281).


Which Which is Which and That That is That

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

For me, the most interesting revelation in Lynne Truss’s curmudgeonly classic Eats, Shoots and Leaves was that British writers and editors are far less meticulous than Americans int he same professions.  “How could that be?” my college-age self wondered.  “Don’t the British supposedly sublimate their fascist tendencies into primness?  And isn’t grammar the prime example of oppressive correctness?”  Since then, I’ve become and editor, and I’ve lost all doubt: British writers fling about grammar and punctuation with an insouciance that makes me sweat.  In other words, “an Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces,” according to a review of Truss’s book in The New Yorker. *

A writer trained in the United Kingdom (or one of its colonies) is likely to use “that” and “which” interchangeably.  Employing these words differently is a classic point of careful American usage, enshrined in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, among other places.  I thought it might be worth revisiting the issue, since the distinction between to two comes as a surprise to many writers.  Because I often find it easier to understand examples than grammatical jargon, I thought it might make sense to start with some instances of the words in motion.

The puppy, which is misbehaving, has been sent to obedience school.

The puppy that is misbehaving has been sent to obedience school.

The sock, which is purple, was under the couch.

The sock that is purple was under the couch.

Ok, so what is going on here?  The idea is that that is “restrictive” and which is “nonrestrictive.”  This means that that specifies a particular kind of sock or puppy.  The misbehaving puppy has been sent to obedience school, but the angelic puppy gets to stay home.  The purple sock was under the couch, but the argyle ones were in the laundry basket.  Which doesn’t specify much of anything; really, it just introduces some explanatory information.  Which is unlikely to be the correct choice for constructing a formally written sentence–that is far more commonly used.

It might sound a little odd, but this grammar rule brings back fond family memories for me.  My father taught it to me when I was in college with the examples “the lawnmower that is broken in in the garage” and “the lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage.”  Later, when I got my own copy of Strunk and White, I was impressed to find that he was quoting the book directly.  Now, whenever I’m not sure whether to use that or which, you can find me mumbling to myself about lawnmowers and thinking of my father.

*On the other hand, a writer in The New Yorker complaining about irritating issues of style is a tad rich, too.  I mean, come on, guys.  Coöperation?  Just because it’s logical doesn’t make it right.

Dashes? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Dashes!

English: Comparison of hyphen, en dash, and em...

English: Comparison of hyphen, en dash, and em dash, and letters n and m, in various fonts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Em dashes, en dashes, and hyphens. The distinction between these three straight lines of minutely differing length is a topic only an editor could love. But it’s also the source of confusion and frustration among members of the tribe, and anyone who has to deal with us. Here’s my attempt at a quick and dirty guide.

Em Dashes

These are the long ones, sized, theoretically, according to the width of a capital M in whatever typeface you’re using. They’re used  to set off a chunk of a sentence from the rest of the sentence (in the same way you would parentheses, before certain kinds of lists, or to indicate a pause). See my earlier post on the em dash and its uses. Example: Editors—why don’t they notice that nobody cares about dumb little details like dashes?

En Dashes

As you may have already guessed, en dashes are the width of a capital N, making them the middle-sized punctuation mark of the trio we’re discussing. They are sometimes hard to distinguish from a hyphen. In virtually all cases, they are used to indicate a range of numbers. Example: The editor found 150–210 mistakes per chapter, though sometimes it felt like 150,000–210,000.


Hyphens are short but sweet. Their use is probably one of the most confusing issues in all of copyediting, and can’t fully be discussed in a post that I’ve already tried to sell as “quick and dirty.” Suffice to say that hyphens generally unite words (often compound modifiers). Example: I dreamed a beautiful dream of a word in which well-trained editors could charge $100 per hour.

Own It: Apostrophe Errors (with Reference to the Insane Clown Posse)

Yep, you said it!

The very first rule of the very first page of the very first section of The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s classic book on writing, concerns apostrophes.  This is a punctuation mark that puzzles many, but from this fog of confusion, Strunk and White distill a single, vital droplet of information: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.”  The first example they cite is “Charles’s friend.”  That’s right.  Do you hear me, world?  If it ends in an s, it still requires an apostrophe, then another s.

This works in 99.9% of cases (this number has been scientifically discovered . . . in my head).  There is, however, one weird exception: “for goodness’ sake,” and other “sake” expressions in which the first noun ends in s. The Chicago Manual of Style (sixteenth edition) justifies this as creating “euphony.”  Which is to say, it sounds better.

Interestingly, in CMoS-land, there used to be other exceptions—special rules about names ending in a silent s or names ending in an “eez” sound (CMoS cites “Xerxes” or “Euripides” as examples, though I prefer to think of this as the Jeffrey Eugenides rule).  In the sixteenth edition, however, the writers changed their minds.  Now Jeffrey Eugenides gets to own things just like everyone else: “Jeffrey Eugenides’s beer cozy.”

Even more interestingly,* Strunk and White and CMoS do differ on the issue of Jesus.  Not in a religious way, mind you, but in a grammatical way.  Which I think we all know is what really matters.  Strunk and White advocate for writing, say, “Jesus’ clown makeup.”  CMoS says “Jesus’s clown makeup.”  But then, something tells me that the Insane Clown Posse does not understand the mystery of apostrophes…or magnets.

*Provided you are boring.