Former vs. latter?

Former and latter are opposite terms that describe people, places, or things in the past. The adjective former describes the first occurring event or person mentioned. In contrast, the adjective latter describes the second subsequent item for a list of two, the last item in a sequence, or the nearest occurring event from the past. Unlike former, the word latter can reference time or events that occur in the future.

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What is the difference between former vs. latter?

When describing events or people of the past, it’s common to use words like former and latter to provide more detail about which came first. But no matter how long you’ve used the English Language, you’re bound to use one or both of these words incorrectly since they appear so similar. 

It’s important to know right off the bat that latter and former do not carry the same definitions, although we use them in a similar sense. In fact, latter and former are opposite terms, and we only use them together in a comparative context. 

In essence, we use words like former and latter to describe something that occurred in the past, whether it’s in an adjective or noun capacity. But where these two words become tricky to use is how we use former in relation to latter. Or better yet–– where the sentence object occurs in a sequence of events. In this sense, we use the two words in a similar context to farther vs. further.

Words like former and latter describe sentence objects in a linear manner, which means that one occurs before the other. If we think of the words former and latter as existing on a ranking from 0 to 100, former would be #0, and the latter would be #100. Or, to state this concept differently–– if we created a timeline between your morning and afternoon, the former would be the morning, and the latter would be the afternoon. 

The key here is that the “former” object occurs first in a sequence while the “latter” object appears after or at the end of a series. Moreover, the “latter” of a timeline is also the most recent in relation to the narrator or writer. So, if you consider the morning-to-afternoon example, the latter still applies to the afternoon if you described the timeline as occurring in the past tense. 

A large reason why former and latter are tricky to understand is that while former only describes a past-object, but the word latter can describe a secondary or final object in a sequence, whether it occurs in the past or future. This is possible if we use the word latter in a sentence without former. For example,

I can buy tickets to Swan Lake, RENT, or Hamilton, but I’m more likely to choose the latter

Debunking grammar myths regarding former vs. latter

If you’re still confused about what each of these terms means, we don’t blame you. There’s a lot of bad information on Google regarding the use of latter and former, especially when it comes to rules like “do not use latter and former in sequences with more than two particular things,” for example. This is simply untrue

The reality is that the English language is complicated, and we use terms like former and latter to describe complex timelines often. Whether something occurs in a sequence of two or 1000, whichever appears in a sequence first is the former because it exists in relation to what occurred thereafter. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the insistence on only using the word latter for lists of two is a non-standard, American English grammar rule.

What does former mean?

The word former is an adjective that describes a noun that existed before or is related to the present tense through a past context. The adjective former indicates the first object of a sequence that precedes the present order. For example, if Justin Trudeau is the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada, then the 22nd Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is the former

There other instances where we use former as an adjective to describe a recent past person, status, or title. For example, 

  • Former partner (e.g., ex-boyfriend, girlfriend, etc.)
  • Former employer or employee 
  • Former President of the United States
  • Former address 

Former as a noun?

The word former also exists as a noun if the reader already knows the noun’s context. For example, 

Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States. The former president releases an annual list of recommended books around New Years Day. 

Former also exists as a noun when referencing an unrelated set of nouns, such as “one that forms,” or the British term for a student or member of a specific educational class.

Synonyms of former

Anterior, antecedent, bygone, departed, earlier, erstwhile, ex-, first, forgoing, late, old, past, proceeding, previous, prior. 

Antonyms of former

After, current, ensuing, following, modern, new, prospective, subsequent, succeeding.

Etymology of former

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, the word former is a Middle English term stemming from the Old English word forma paired with the suffix -er, which creates a comparative meaning of “earlier” (Chantrell, 217).  

What does latter mean?

The term latter is an adjective used to describe a subsequential noun that exists last or the noun most recently mentioned in the order of occurrence. 

If the reading audience understands there are only two events, the second event that occurs is considered “the latter.” For example, 

Shaun had to choose between Yale and Harvard and chose the latter.

Latter as a noun?

The word latter does not exist as a noun in the same way as former, although we can use the term as “the latter” similar to a pronoun once it’s context is established. However, it’s important to be careful about using latter and former as though they are pronouns because it’s easy to mix them up. For example,

Amy is the former Governor of New York, although she was mentored by Jessica, who served before her. The latter of the two had a reputation for bad politics. 

In this example, how do we know which is the latter and the former? Which person does the word latter act as a pronoun for? While Jessica is the last mentioned person in the sequential order, she is not the “latter” subject if we are using “the latter correctly. Because Amy served as governor after Jessica, Amy is the “the latter” who has a bad reputation, not Jessica. 

Synonyms of latter

Bottommost, closing, concluding, final, hindmost, last, latest, rearmost, terminal, terminating. 

Antonyms of latter

Beginning, earliest, first, foremost, initial, maiden, opening, original, pioneer, primary. 

Etymology of latter

You may have noticed how the word latter has a similar meaning to the terms later and late. The word late originates from Old English lǣt, an adjective of Germanic origin used to describe something as slow or tardy. Meanwhile, word latter appears in Old English as lætra, as the comparative form of lǣt to mean “slower” (Chantrell, 295).  

How to use former vs. latter in a sentence?

Learning how to use former and latter correctly isn’t easy, but the following sentence breakdowns can help you understand how each word is used differently for specific contexts. English grammar also takes a lot of practice, so we encourage you to practice using these examples for your own writing, as well. 

When to use former in a sentence:

To describe something that occurred before the present time, or to relate to something of the past. 

Adults look toward the youth to recognize their former selves. 
The actor is obsessed with achieving his former beach bod. 

To describe something that precedes another in a given order.

Let’s read through the former draft submitted. 
She was a humpback whale in her former life. 

To reference the first of two cited items. 

Of the two papers, the former essay reads more fluently. 
Of the two employees, the former assistant performed the best. 

To describe a one time, past quality or state of being. 

The former MMA heavy-weight champion of the world. 
The former preschool teacher is now an engineer. 

When to use latter in a sentence:

To describe something that belongs to a more recent time following another.

I’ve experienced several stages in my 20s’ but the latter years have treated me the best.

To reference something that exists toward the end.

Students complete their capstones during the latter point of their education. 

To describe a more recent quality that extends into the present moment.

Latter natural disasters have complicated Puerto Rico’s recovery from  Hurricane Maria. 

To reference either the second mentioned of two or the last item mentioned in a sequence. 

Between serving and bartending, the latter is more difficult. 
We enjoyed Astoria, Spokane, Seattle, and Portland, but the latter has more character.

Creative alternatives to using former in a sentence

Learning how to use former and latter correctly are basic grammar lessons in creating great prose, but common language can leave a lackluster impression for points we intend to emphasize. If you’re ready to channel your inner-Virginia Wolf with decorative, vivid language, here are three alternatives to use in place of former when poignancy is needed (especially within academic writing):

Ci-devant

Ci-devant is a French, attributive adjective that translates to “heretofore” or “from an earlier time.” More specifically, the term indicates a quality that was once held by something but no longer exists. 

Madonna is the ci-devant queen of pop music. 
The Simpson’s gothic estate permeates the musk of ci-devant brutality.  

Quondam

The word quondam is a late 16th-century term that stems from Latin to mean “former” or “sometimes.” Quondam is more formal than other attributive adjectives and is used to describe something “that once was,” or an occurrence at one specific time. 

I cannot approve the use of your quondam MLA citations,” said the professor. 
The quondam actress’s true passion wasn’t to reenact scenes from great shows, but to write great scripts.”  

Whilom

The term whilom is an archaic adjective used in place of former or formerly. Whilom derives from Old English hwīlum to describe something that occurred “at times,” possibly once, or sometime in the past. 

Mary is happy to choose love over the whilom boyfriends who left.
She was a whilom ice cream fanatic. 

How to remember the difference between former and latter?

Before you leave to write on your own, here is an easy-to-remember grammar tip for using former vs. latter correctly every time: 

The word former describes the first item mentioned or the first item occurring in the past. Luckily for us, the term former also begins with the letter “F” for first. 

The term latter refers to the last item mentioned, or the last event occurring from the past. To remember this, associate the “L” of latter with the word “last.” 

Former = “F” for first
Latter = “L” for last

FAQ: Related to former vs latter

How to use latter vs. former in AP Style? 

When it comes to The Associated Press Stylebook for latter vs. former, the AP Stylebook doesn’t recommend using one over another or reserving the terms for specific instances. However, the AP Stylebook advises writers to avoid capitalizing “former” if it occurs in front of a person’s proper title and to use capitalization for the title instead. Any additional reference of the former figure is mentioned using their last name or shortened name for historical people (i.e., George VI). 

For example, 

We remember the former King of the United Kingdom, George VI. 
The Labour Party’s former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Theresa May is the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Test Yourself!

Do you know the difference between former and latter? It’s better to find out now than later! Test your grammar know-how with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. The word _________ describes a subsequent order of occurrence where an item is the second of two or at the very end of a list. 
    1. Former
    2. Latter
    3. Both are correct
    4. None of the above
  2. _________ is an adjective that often describes a person, place, or thing in the past tense.
    1. Former
    2. Latter
    3. Both are correct
    4. None of the above
  3. The word _________ describes a noun that existed the earliest or as the first item in a sequence. 
    1. Former
    2. Latter
    3. Both are correct
    4. None of the above
  4. If you graduated from Yale University in 2015 before earning a degree from Harvard University, which school is the “former” and which is the “latter?” 
    1. Yale is latter, Harvard is former
    2. Yale is former, Harvard is latter
  5. Which of the following words are not related to former or latter?
    1. Anterior
    2. Posterior 
    3. Imminent
    4. Maiden
  6. Which of the following is not an antonym of the word former? 
    1. Ongoing
    2. Contemporary
    3. Prospective
    4. Forgoing
  7. Which of the following is not a synonym of the word latter? 
    1. Hindmost
    2. Farthermost
    3. Outlier 
    4. Outermost

Answers

  1. B
  2. C
  3. A
  4. A
  5. C
  6. D
  7. C

Sources

  1. Chantrell, G. “Former” & “Late.” The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Oxford University Press, pp. 217-295, 2002. 
  2. Ci-devant.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
  3. Latter.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  4. Latter.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2019.
  5. “Former.” The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, The Associated Press, pp. 111, Jul 2017. 
  6. Former.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  7. Former.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2019.
  8. Former.” Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, Philip Lief Group, 2013.
  9. Quondam”. Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
  10. Whilom.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.