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Former vs. Latter, Explained

Former vs latter

Last updated on February 12th, 2024 at 08:05 pm



The former and the latter

Former vs. latter (when used as a pair) are terms that specify something previously mentioned in a list of two (or sometimes more) things. By “things”, I mean whichever object, person, option etc., is presented by the person speaking or writing. We use the former when we refer to the first of two things mentioned, and the latter to refer to the second or last thing mentioned. Here’s a sentence that illustrates the correct usage of the former and the latter:

I have a grey horse and a black horse; take the former, and send the latter to my brother.


Together, former and latter create a noun phrase, and invariably follow the definite article “the” in sentences and speech (e.g., “the former“, “the latter“). It’s incorrect to use an indefinite article, such as a or an, since the former and the latter stand in the place of something specific that’s been previously mentioned. To learn more about definite and indefinite articles, you can read our guide on articles in grammar.



Sentences with the former and the latter

While shellfish and salmon are both technically seafood; Judaism nevertheless forbids the former and not the latter.

Both natural ability and a strong work ethic are required for success. Between the two, I’d pick the latter over the former.

The Sopranos and Game of Thrones are both outstanding shows, but I prefer the former to the latter.


A quick and easy tip to remember the former and the latter is to associate the former with first (since both start with “f”), and latter with “later” or second.

Note: there are differing views on whether it’s proper form to use the former and the latter when more than two things are mentioned. Some sources strongly recommend that we only use these terms in a list of two things, and that it’s incorrect to use in lists of three or more. Still, other style guides maintain that it’s acceptable to use the former and the latter in lists of three or more. Since there are opposing views on this matter, we recommend to stick to use these terms in lists of two and not more, to avoid confusion.



Meaning of former

From Old English “forma”, meaning “first”, former is mostly an adjective, and means “first or earliest in time or order”. Former appears in different albeit related contexts:

  • To specify the “first in order of two or more things cited or understood”; e.g., “of the two spellings, the former is more common“.


  • Former also appears as an adjective to describe something someone had been previously, such as filled a particular role (e.g., “the former president“, “her former high-school crush“), or had been a particular thing (e.g., “my former self”, “my former school”).



Sentences with former

As in something that existed at an earlier or past time:

This fine ruin was, in former times, a royal castle.

This beautiful old building has been restored to its former glory.

In her former life as a Russian ballerina


As in having filled a particular position or role:

the 41-year-old former world champion

the former president/prime minister

former South African president Nelson Mandela

both current and former employees



Meaning of latter

From Old English lætra meaning “slower,” the use of latter to mean “what’s been mentioned second of two or last” is first seen in the 1550s. These days, this is the sense in which the adjective mostly appears in—i.e., with the former, to specify the second or last thing mentioned.

  • Latter can also refer to a later period or time; e.g., “in his latter and more contemplative years“.



Sentences with latter

Meaning the second of two things or people mentioned:

He chose the latter option.

The latter point is the most important.

We’ll go in the latter half of the year.



Meaning closer to the end of a period of time, as opposed to its beginning:

the latter half of the year

during the latter stages of the tournament

The latter half of the twentieth century saw huge growth in air travel.



Synonyms of latter

  • Following
  • Subsequent
  • Ensuing
  • Second
  • Later
  • Last
  • Closing
  • Final
  • Last-mentioned



Synonyms of former

  • First
  • Previous
  • Preceding
  • Aforementioned
  • Aforesaid
  • Earlier
  • Past
  • Above
  • Before



Sources

  1. Origin of latter
  2. Origin of former


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