I’ve written numerous columns about confusion caused by homonyms. Today I’ll begin an exploration of other kinds of problem pairs. This week’s terms are about making comparisons.

I’ve written numerous columns about confusion caused by homonyms. Today I’ll begin an exploration of other kinds of problem pairs.

This week’s terms are about making comparisons.

“Farther” and “further”: Most usage guides are in step with this citation from “The Chicago Manual of Style”: “The traditional distinction is to use ‘farther’ for a physical distance and ‘further’ for a figurative distance.”

These examples are from The Associated Press Stylebook:

“He walked farther into the woods.”

“She will look further into the mystery.”

“Further” also can mean “additional,” as in “after further discussion,” and it can be a verb meaning “to give aid to” or “promote,” as in “this will further your career.”

Furthermore, there’s no farthermore.

Ultimately, “further” (and “furthest”) might overtake “farther” (and “farthest”) in all such uses. Then “far, further, furthest” could join the small shape-shifting club that includes “good, better, best” and “bad, worse, worst.”

“Far” would still have plenty of words and phrases to play with, including “far and away,” “far and near,” “far and wide,” “far-fetched,” “far-flung,” “far-reaching,” “farsighted” and “far be it from me.”

“Fewer” and “less”: In general, the former goes with what are called “count nouns” — things that can be counted — and the latter with “mass nouns.” So, it’s fewer words, less conversation, fewer cookies, less dessert.

In most cases, a plural noun calls for “fewer,” a singular one “less.” Naturally, there are exceptions — in expressions of time and money, for instance.

As Bryan A. Garner puts it in “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” in such cases “count nouns essentially function as mass nouns because the units are so very numerous or they aren’t considered discrete items.”

So we say something costs “less than 50 cents” or a trip takes “less than two hours” rather than “fewer than.”

Here’s one other wrinkle: When a count noun is down to one, use “less,” not “fewer”: That’s one less (not “fewer”) usage problem to worry about.  

“Over” and “more than”: Here’s another pair that will make traditionalists gnash their teeth.

The Chicago manual says of “over”: “As an equivalent of ‘more than,’ this word is perfectly good idiomatic English.”

Here’s Garner’s view: “In one of its uses, the prepositional ‘over’ is interchangeable with ‘more than’ — and this has been so for more than 600 years.” Or “over 600 years”?

In “Right, Wrong, and Risky,” Mark Davidson writes that Merriam-Webster researchers noted that “the centuries-old use of ‘over’ in a phrase such as ‘over 10,000 spectators’ became a victim of unexplained and unjustified criticism by some American usage commentators of the late 19th and early 20th century.”

The AP Stylebook is one of those usage guides that clings to this notion of “over,” that it “generally refers to spatial relationships” — thus complicating the work of headline writers who must find room for two words where one would do.

I think this is overly restrictive. Try this sometime: Look in the dictionary at all the words with the prefix “over-.” You’ll find plenty of them where “over-” is expressing quantity rather than position, starting with the first one: “overabundance” — “more than an abundance.”

Next week, I’ll have more trying twosomes.

Punctuation Station

The Associated Press style on an ellipsis (three periods ... indicating a deletion) is to treat it as a three-letter word, with a space at each end.

If an ellipsis comes at the end of “a grammatically complete sentence,” you need a period at the end of the last word before the ellipsis. ... Like that.

Not all style guides recommend this “four-dot” approach, however. As always, if you write for a living (or for a grade), know the house rules.

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.