Many thanks to the readers who wrote in with ideas about topics to discuss. Today I'll briefly clarify the use of farther v. further, the use of irregardless and comparison of adverbs.
Remember that "Farther" Contains the Word "Far"
Farther represents physical distance, while further represents metaphorical or mental distance. In other words, one would say, "He walked farther than I did," but "I don't want to discuss this any further." It's easy to get confused, but a handy memory aid is to remember that "far" implies distance.
"Irregardless" Adds an Unneeded Negative
People say "irregardless," which is incorrect, because they get confused between "regardless" and "irrespective." Both of the latter two terms mean "without regard to" or "without considering," as in, "Anyone can come to the company party, regardless of their position." "Irregardless" simply adds an unneeded negative.
Comparative Adverbs Usually Contain the Word "More"
Several people mentioned the faulty comparison of adverbs. With most adverbs, you form the comparative by adding the word "more." You might say, for example, "She worked conscientiously." In the comparative, you would say, "She worked more conscientiously than Joe did."
Many people, however, fail to follow this convention. How often have we read or heard sentences like, "We just want people to drive safer," or "They did it cheaper than we did." What they should have said is "drive more safely" and "did it more cheaply."
Once someone came to me for help because they said they wanted to "write clearer." I can't criticize anyone who knows they need to improve and does something about it, but he should have said "more clearly."
Follow the Rules but Use Common Sense
As I mentioned last time, you should strive to get the basic stuff right but you shouldn't obsess about the fine points of grammar. Worrying about the fine points is dangerous in part because the language is constantly changing and not everyone agrees.
Take split infinitives, for example. The old rule was that you couldn't put anything between the "to" and the verb that followed. "To go" was correct; "to boldly go" was not. Why was that? Because when the rules of English grammar were being formalized, they were based on Latin, and in Latin the infinitive is a single word. Hence, it could not be split. Now this so-called rule is generally ignored.
Also, just because it's in the dictionary doesn't make it right. Both "irregardless" and "ain't," for example, are in my dictionary. Many dictionaries used to be prescriptive; they told you what was right. Now, however, they're descriptive; if anyone says it anywhere, they want to record it, whether it's right or not.
In the end, try to follow the rules, but use common sense as well.
All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at http://www.holton.cc/archive.html.