“Former” vs. “Latter”: What’s The Difference?

First things first: former and latter are both terms that denote an item’s place in a two-part sequence. Former refers to the first of a set, while latter refers to the second, or last, item. They usually appear in the sentence immediately following the sequence they are describing.

Former and latter in sequence

Take this example from The Young Student’s Companion: “I have a grey horse and a black horse; take the former, and send the latter to my brother.”

Here, the former item in the list is a grey horse, and the latter item is a black horse. By using the terms in this way, the speaker manages to indicate which horse the listener should take and which should be sent to their brother without having to repeat the full description of each horse.

Of course, the terms can be used independently of each other while still referring to a sequence.

For example (from the New York Times): “…Most suburbanites of those days—when the word ‘sustainable’ had not yet been coined—didn’t grow anything besides lawn and dandelions (the latter unintentionally).”

Additional uses and meanings

Both of these words have somewhat related secondary meanings. Former first appears in the 1100s, as a term equivalent to forme. It means “preceding in time” and can be used to describe “having once, or previously, been.” For example, a new employee may be introduced as “Jim, formerly of Very Big Corporation,” with the clear meaning that he’s no longer an employee there. Similarly, Jimmy Carter is a former president in that he stopped being president in 1981.

In addition to meaning “being the second mentioned of two,” latter can also refer to something that is “more advanced in time” and “near or comparatively near the end.” It originated before 1000 from the Old English lætra. The full name of the Mormon Church, for example, is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” Here, Latter-Day is a reference to a time period and is almost synonymous with late.

How to use them

Former and latter usually show up in formal or technical writing. It’s rare that either word appears in casual speech. This is partly because it sounds odd to modern listeners, but mostly because the audience can’t go back over the preceding sentence to double-check which item in a set is former and which is latter.

An easy way to remember the difference is to recall that both former and first begin with an F, while both latter and last start with an L. Just remember that former and latter shouldn’t appear after lists that contain more than two items.

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