Have you ever seen “former” and “latter” in writing and wondered what they mean? These words can seem confusing, and they probably sound old-fashioned to most people. But they are useful terms in formal writing, so check out our guide to find out how to use them.
How to Use “Former” and “Latter”
We use “former” and “latter” to distinguish between two things that have been previously mentioned. In particular, “former” refers to the first of two things, while “latter” refers to the second:
Between cake and death, I prefer the former over the latter.
Above, we’ve color-coded the terms to show which one refers to which. And, unsurprisingly, the speaker is here saying they prefer cake to death.
We’ve also used both terms in the sentence above, but we can use either by itself. For instance, we could rewrite the previous example as follows:
Between cake and death, I prefer the former.
Here, “former” still refers to “cake” (i.e., the first of two options). But the “latter” is implicit. Alternatively, we could rephrase the sentence so that we focus on the second option:
Between cake and death, only a fool would choose the latter.
To remember which of these terms is which, keep the following in mind:
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Former starts with the letter F, so it refers to the first of two things.
Latter starts with the letter L, so it refers to the last of two things.
Larger Lists or Groups
So if “former” and “latter” refer to two things, what do you do when discussing more than two things? Some people use “latter” in this context:
Out of carrots, broccoli, and turnips, I only eat the latter.
Here, “latter” means “last.” And this is okay in informal writing. In formal writing, though, you should only use “former” and “latter” with two things. And “former” is never used to identify the first item in a list.
But to distinguish between items in a longer list in formal writing, you can use ordinal numbers. This is also clearer, as each item in the list will have a specific numbered position. For example:
Boys are made of slugs, snails, and puppy dogs’ tails. The first and third of these are for extra masculinity, while the second is for flavor.
Summary: What Do “Former” and “Latter” Mean?
We use “former” and “latter” to distinguish between two things in a sentence:
Use former when referring to the first of two things.
Use latter when referring to the second of two things.
Keep in mind, too, that these terms are not usually used with lists of three or more things. If you need to distinguish between items in a longer list, use ordinal numbers (e.g., first, second, third). And to make sure that your writing is error free, you can always get your work proofread.