"How Far" and "How Long": What's the Difference?

Today, we'll show you how "How far" and "How long" differ in meaning and grammar.

Differences in Meaning

1. We use “how long” to ask about physical length.

"How long" is used to ask about the length of things.

  • How long is the rope?
    It's three meters long.
  • How long is a marathon?
    Marathons are 26 miles long.

2. We also use "how long" to ask about the length of time.

"How long" is also used to ask about the length of time.

  • How long is the train ride?
    An hour and a half.
  • How long will you stay in Thailand?
    Five days.
  • How long did you wait?
    Just five minutes.

3. We use “how far” to ask about distance.

People use "how far" to ask about the distance.

  • How far do you jog every morning?
    About five miles.
  • How far can you kick a football?
    My record is 40 meters.

You can reply to "How far" questions with the distance or a piece of information that gives people an idea of the distance.

  • How far are we from the nearest hospital?
    About two kilometers away. / A 10-minute drive away.
  • How far is it to the peak of the mountain?
    We're just 500 meters away. / We're halfway there.

Differences in Grammar

1. "How far is it ... ?"

You may have noticed that many "How far" questions start with "How far is it." Sometimes, the "it" refers to a place that was already mentioned. For example, if someone says, "Did you just come from school? How far is it from here?", the "it" refers to your school.

However most of the time, the "it" is an empty it.

  • How far is it to the nearest hospital? [= How far is the nearest hospital?]
  • How far is it from here to there? [= What's the distance from here to there?]

In these questions, "it" doesn't refer to anything and is only used for grammatical reasons. For example, "How far from here to there?" would be grammatically incorrect, since the sentence doesn't have a subject. That's why native English speakers add an empty it: "How far is it from here to there?"

2. "How long does it take ... ?"

People also use "how long" with an empty it, but only when they're asking about the amount of time needed to do something.

  • How long does it take to get to work every day?
    It takes about 30 minutes by train.
  • How long did it take for you to run your marathon?
    It took me over five hours.

The "take" here is the verb "take (time)." So when you hear the phrase "How long does it take to," you know the person is asking about time — not distance!

Your Turn!

It's time for you to practice! Fill in the following with the correct phrase: "How far" or "How long."

  1. _____ is it to the nearest hospital?
    20 minutes by bus.
  2. _____ does it take to walk there?
    About 10 minutes.
  3. _____ can you keep food in the freezer?
    It depends, but usually months.
  4. _____ is it to Mars?
    About 225 million kilometers.
  5. _____ was Mark out sick?
    He was out for a week.
  6. _____ have you two been dating?
    We've been dating since uni.
  7. _____ can you jump?
    My record is two meters.
  8. _____ can you hold your breath?
    Two minutes.
  9. _____ do you live from here?
    A 40-minute drive.
  10. _____ have you been living in Canada?
    I've been here for nearly 50 years.

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