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How to Use “Former” and “Latter”

Updated on May 17, 2019Grammar

The terms former and latter are words used to distinguish between two things. Former directs us to the first of these two things, and latter directs us to the second (or last) of them. Do not use former or latter when you are writing about more than two things.

Former and latter are words that sound old-fashioned to some people, and indeed they are very old words.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, former derives from the Old English word forma, meaning “first.” By the 12th century, former was used to mean “first, earliest in time or order,” and by the 1580s, it arrived at its present meaning, “the first of two.” Latter has a similar history. In Old English, lætra was the comparative form of “late” and latter had arrived at its present meaning of “the second of two” by the 1550s. It is a relative of our modern word later.

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“Former” vs. “latter”: Remembering which is which couldn’t be easier

When using former and latter to distinguish between two things, remember “F for first, L for last.”

The Simpsons and Game of Thrones are both great shows, but I prefer the former.

This writer is a fan of The Simpsons, which is the first show mentioned.

She thinks polar bears and hamsters are both cute, but I could only recommend the latter as a pet.

This writer holds a belief that hamsters, the last animal mentioned, is the better of the two companions for a human.

Keep in mind that it isn’t a good idea to overuse former and latter in any one piece of writing. Readers tend to be confused by this because it essentially asks the reader to glance back at the two items to reference which item was listed first and which was last. If you ask your readers to perform too many mental maneuvers, they tend to lose interest quickly. However, in academic writing it can be very useful. Naturally, because these terms refer to items in a list, it’s uncommon to hear them in spoken language, because there is nothing for the listener to go back and refer to—they are just words in the wind.

Never use “former” and “latter” with lists of more than two

Here’s a tip:

The principal caveat about using former and latter is this:

These are words that can only be applied to two things, never three (or more).

My hobbies are singing, playing the piano, and dancing, but the former is my true passion.

My hobbies are singing, playing the piano, and dancing, but the first is my true passion.

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