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If someone asks "How far is Brazil from Argentina", a possible answer is "It's about X kilometers". However, if someone asks "How high is this mountain?" you can answer "It's about X meters high". I think that "It's about X kilometers far" would sound weird, but I don't whether it's correct or not. Could you help me?

  • You're comparing two different kinds of questions. The first has two end points and simply asks for the difference; the second, however, marks neither endpoint, and only identifies the mountain, so it needs more specification in the answer. Note that the dimension in a mountain is vertical (How high? That high) and that has to be specified in the question. Note that it could be answered with just a measure phrase, like the first one, but high is allowed. How high is Mt. Baker? It's 3286 meters (high). – John Lawler Jul 11 '13 at 0:39
  • @JohnLawler Height also has two endpoints - sea level and the summit. Height is the difference. – bib Jul 11 '13 at 1:12
  • Yes, but neither is mentioned in the sentence. One has to infer them, and one should specify that that's necessary. – John Lawler Jul 11 '13 at 2:13
  • You wouldn't say "he's around 90 kilograms heavy", either. – Peter Shor Jul 11 '13 at 15:42
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In sentences like

  • How high is the mountain?
  • How far is Brazil?

high and far function as adjectives, and the question asks about a quality of the adjective.

High can be used on its own, intensified, or qualified:

  • The mountain is high.
  • The mountain is very high.
  • The mountain is three miles high.

Far can only be intensified. It can't be qualified, and it's odd on its own:

  • ?Brazil is far.
  • *Brazil is 12000 miles far.
  • Brazil is very far.

The difference between far and high may be due to direction of measurement. Although we live in a three-dimensional world with mountains, we move on its surface and default to measuring in its two dimensions. High [and deep] can be qualified because when we measure vertically we need to specify that direction; far can't be qualified because it doesn't refer, and doesn't need to refer, to a direction.

If you need to qualify far, you need to use a word which can be qualified like away ("Brazil is 12000 miles away") but that's a different question. Away can't be used on its own in this sense (*Brazil is away) or intensified (*Brazil is very away).

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  • I would analyze "far away" as a two-word grammatical unit here, and not as a two-component phrase. – Peter Shor Jul 11 '13 at 15:29
  • I deliberately didn't mention far away. – Andrew Leach Jul 11 '13 at 16:00
  • You're right ... I clearly misread your last paragraph. – Peter Shor Jul 11 '13 at 16:40
  • Thank you all very much for your help. It makes a lot of sense. – Sérgio Luz e Souza Jul 13 '13 at 19:15
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When you are discussing distance (from A to B), you have got to specify A and B, either implicitly or explicitly. In other words, distance involves two points that need to be specified.

On the other hand, height is a characteristic of a single object, so you only need to specify the object itself, again either implicitly or explicitly. So you can properly say:

A is x metres high

With distance you can use distant similarly to high, but because you need to specify A and B, the phrasing is usually slightly different, e.g.:

A is x km distant from B
A is x km distant [from here]

But it's often easier and clearer to say:

The distance from A to B is x km.

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