If you’re in school or reading any type of academic prose, you have mostly likely seen these two words in some of your assigned readings. They usually appear as a pair but not always, and many readers find them confusing.
Once you know how to use these two words, they aren’t confusing at all. In fact, they have near opposite meanings. In today’s post, I want to go over the meanings of both of these words, the functions in a sentence, and how to best use them in your future writings.
When to Use Former
When former is used in the sense of former vs. latter, it is either acting as an adjective or as a noun. Former means being the first of two persons or things mentioned. For example,
- I was accepted to Harvard and Yale for college. The former school had cheaper tuition. (Adjective)
- I was accepted to Harvard and Yale for college, but the former had cheaper tuition. (Noun)
When to Use Latter
Just as former can function as both an adjective and noun, so can latter.
Latter means being the second of two persons or things mentioned. It comes from the comparative form of Old English laet: laetra, which meant “slower.” Latter subsequently took on the meaning “the second of two people or things.” For example,
- We went to the beach with Steve and Susie, the latter of whom would not stop complaining.
- You need to replace the tie-rod or the ball joint, the latter of which being more expensive.
A note to keep in mind when using the word latter is not to confuse it with the word ladder. Even though they sound somewhat similar when you say them out loud, they are very different. A ladder is a device people climb up and down.
As you can see, they are very different. In order to not confuse ladder and latter when you write, remember that latter is related to later. Both have “T’s” in them.
Be Careful Using These Words
You might be tempted to use former and latter with more than just two items, and although this tendency comes to the surface every now and then—even in respectable sources—it should be avoided.
- There are three flavors in Neapolitan ice cream, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. The former is my favorite. (WRONG)
There are much cleaner and easier ways to convey the same message without confusing people.
- There are three flavors in Neapolitan ice cream, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. The first of which is my favorite. (CORRECT)
Additionally, When you use latter and former in your writing, be sure that they are in close proximity to their antecedents (the people or items to which they are referring). It is undesirable for the reader to go back and reread a passage because he forgot which one was the former and which one was the latter. It’s best to keep them as close as possible.
Remember the Difference
These two words are easy to keep track of if you can remember this one trick.
Former is the first word. Both former and first start with the letter “F.”
Latter is the last word. Both latter and last start with the letter “L.” You can also remember that latter comes later than does former.
Former is the first of two mentioned things.
Latter is the second of two mentioned things.
Former vs. Latter – How to Use Each Correctly
What’s the Difference Between Former and Latter?
Former and latter often appear together in formal or academic writing. You may also occasionally hear them in spoken English, especially in more formal settings such as a speech or during a business meeting.
When used together, these two words refer to two items in a sequence.
Former points to the first of the two items in the sequence.
- Cats and dogs are both popular types of pets. However, the former requires less exercise.
Latter points to the second, or last, of the two items in the sequence.
- You can visit either the East Wing or the West Wing of the museum. The former has a display on Roman art, while the latter shows Native American art.
Although these words are often used in conjunction, it is also possible to see just one at a time. There are other meanings for each word that will be discussed in greater depth in the sections below.
Using Former in a Sentence
When to use former: Former is an adjective that has several different definitions, all of which relate to something that is previous to another thing or time.
For the first definition, former can mean the first of two items mentioned in a sequence. The second definition is something from a previous or earlier time. The third and final meaning indicates a position or state that a person had in the past, but no longer holds.
- Costa Rica has both monkeys and sloths in its jungles. However, the former are much faster than the latter. (first meaning)
- While we were in a former part of the conference, a large argument broke out. (second meaning)
- This is my former husband, Frank. We divorced ten years ago. (third meaning)
There is also an idiom that uses former:
- a shadow of one’s former self: a person who has declined over time from how great they used to be
- Sarah used to be so outgoing and full of life. These days she seems depressed and never goes out. She’s a shadow of her former self. I’m worried about her.
Because all three meanings are related to something that happened first in time, the definitions are fairly similar.
Using Latter in a Sentence
When to use latter: Latter is also an adjective that has two similar definitions. Firstly, it can mean the last of two items mentioned in a sequence. Secondly, it can be used as a synonym for later or near the end.
- The recipe calls for both butter and milk, although only the latter is essential. (first meaning)
- During the latter part of the 20th century, huge strides had been made within the field of technology. (second meaning)
There aren’t any common expressions with latter. However, there is a religion that uses latter in its name, the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
Remembering Former vs. Latter
There are two ways to help you remember which word to use and when.
Former starts with the letter f, as does the word first. Former means the first of two items listed in a sentence.
Latter starts with the letter l, as does the word last. Latter means the last of two items listed in a sentence.
It’s also important to remember to use both of these words only in a sequence of two items. If the list has three or more items, these words won’t make sense.
- As the Senate prepares to vote this week on its Republican leaders’ quest to demolish the Affordable Care Act, a former GOP senator from a more bipartisan time is pleading with his successors to resist “bullying” to support a bill they do not yet understand. –Washington Post
- The Angels traded two minor league pitchers to the Washington Nationals for Espinosa in December, hoping he could provide good defense and some pop at the plate. He did the former, but not the latter. –OC Register
- And finally, there are variations of on-the-job training, ranging from informal mentorships and “learn by doing” to formal trade apprenticeships. The latter is quite common in the building trades, for example. –LA Times
- Taking a break from indulging my inner stadium nerd, I visited the Tate Modern and the observation deck atop the Shard. The latter has toilets with full glass windows — making it a loo with an incredible view. –New York Post
Quiz: Latter vs. Former
Instructions: Select the correct word to fit in the blanks, either latter or former.
- Pandas and koalas are both popular animals. However, only the__________________ is native to China. The ______________ is native to Australia.
- That is my ______________ best friend. We had a big fight and don’t talk anymore.
- He’s a member of the Church of ________ Day Saints.
See answers below.
Should I use former or latter? Use these words when referring to two listed items in a sequence.
- Former means the first of the two items in the sequence.
- Latter means the last of the two items in the sequence.
Remember that former always refers to something at an earlier or previous time or position, and latter is similar to the meaning of later.
- former, latter
Former vs. Latter: Which is Which?
You’ve probably come across the terms former and latter at some point, either in writing or in conversation.
While these words save you the trouble of repeating yourself, you must understand what each is referring to for these substitutes to be effective.
Former vs. Latter
Former and latter are 2 words used to refer to 2 previously mentioned things. Former refers to the first thing mentioned, while latter is the second thing mentioned.
Note that this can only be used to distinguish between two items. Never use former and latter when you’ve referred to more than two things.
It’s also wise to use these words sparingly throughout your writing. Using former or latter too often can get confusing for readers, since 1) many people don’t have a clear understanding of what each means, and 2) readers will need to frequently look back at which is which in the previous sentence.
As an adjective, former described someone or something that previously held a certain role or purpose. It’s usually synonymous with the prefix “ex-“, as in “ex-husband” or “ex-associate.”
Former can also denote the first mentioned of two people or things, which is the use we’re covering in this article.
Latter is an adjective that describes something situated closer to the end of something than to the beginning.
Latter, as we’ve already discussed, can also denote the second of 2 previously mentioned things.
Examples of Former and Latter
- Coffee and tea are both great beverages, but I prefer the former.
- She loved both dogs and cats, but since the former made her sneeze, she could only keep the latter as a pet.
- When he had to choose between wine or beer, he always ordered the latter.
- He was given a choice between chocolate or strawberry. He was allergic to the former, while the latter repulsed him.
- Her hobbies include writing and singing, but the latter is her true passion.
How to Remember the Difference
Former or Latter – The Correct Way to Use Each
Both words are used as adjectives.
- Former means the first of two items.
- Latter means the second of two items.
Continue read to see how these words are used in English sentences.
- Have you ever heard someone distinguish between the former and the latter but didn’t know what that person meant?
- Former and latter are adjectives that most people only use within a very limited context: to describe the order of two things that were mentioned together.
- Most of the time, people use these terms without explaining them, so language learners or beginner writers might not know what they mean.
What is the Difference Between Former and Latter?
In this post, I will compare latter vs. former. I will use each of these words in at least one example sentence, so you can see them in context.
Plus, I will show you a helpful memory tool that you can use to help you decide whether latter or former is the word you mean.
How to Use Former
Former vs. Latter
We already discussed about what “latter” means and when it should be used, in a previous article, where we actually outlined the difference between “latter” and “later” and explained how to make sure you never misspell them. If you think it might be useful, go check that too. But what about “former” and “latter”?
What's the difference between them? Sometimes, people get confused and tend to use one instead of the other, which is wrong because each has its own signification and rules of usage. So that's what we're going to point out in this article: what “former” and “latter” mean and how you can use them correctly in your expressions.
Former vs. Latter
Both “former” and “latter” have identical rules of usage. Mainly, they are adjectives that can only appear before nouns and can only be used in this form: adjective + noun. They don't necessarily describe something, they actually tell something about the noun. But, they can also function as nouns, if you add “the” before them. So if you use them as “the former” or “the latter”, they slightly change their definitions and can be used differently. See below how, as well as some relevant examples.
When do we use “former”?
“Former” in this form, simply, without the definite article placed before, can only be used before a noun. The word refers to something that existed, happened or was true in the past, but not in the present anymore. If it is preceded by the definite article “the”, then it becomes a noun and it refers to the first of two elements that have just been mentioned or talked about.
Example 1: Our former president was replaced a few years ago by a more competent person. – “former” placed before “president” tells that the person occupied, but does not anymore, the president's position.
Example 2: You can choose either a laptop or a pc, but the former is a better choice given how much you travel and need mobility. – “the former” refers to the first of the two elements just mentioned, in this case to the laptop.
When do we use “latter”?
Former and Latter | The MLA Style Center
By Barney Latimer
There are many stylistic sins worse than using former and latter. But if you’ve ever had to stop and reread a sentence or passage to figure out what former and latter point back to, you know why it’s best to avoid them. Making readers pick their way back through the text will surely frustrate them and delay or inhibit their ability to understand your point.
- The following is a good example of a passage that relies on former and latter to create a bridge between two sentences:
- So what’s a writer to do? One possibility is to repeat the two things that former and latter refer to so the reader no longer has to scan back over the text:
- Doing so, however, introduces the clunky repetition that the writer was looking to avoid in the first place.
A solution will often reveal itself when you look beyond the obvious, quick fix. Step back and try looking at the passage as a kind of puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet. By assembling the pieces in different ways, the picture will become either more or less clear. This can be an empowering and even liberating way of thinking about revision.
This approach of reconfiguration means that the writer is not locked in to a choice between the two alternatives above. Let’s dig a little deeper and ask, Does the author even need to refer to each periodical more than once? Can we rework the prose to obviate the need for repetition? When we look again at the passage with these questions in mind, a solution reveals itself:
This revision allows the names of the periodicals to take the place of former and latter. And, as sometimes happens when you identify one problem and find a creative solution to it, another aspect of the passage improves as well.
In the original, “These ideologically different venues” are described as “reveal[ing] the congress’s inclusive goals.
” However, it’s not exactly the venues themselves—but, rather, the fact that the congress was announced in two different places—that revealed the congress’s inclusivity.
This kind of happy accident is surprisingly common. When you look beyond the quick fix and approach the passage you are revising as a whole composed of many movable parts, reconfiguring the parts to remove one weakness can yield a structure that is stronger overall.