Former vs. Latter: What’s the Difference?

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 to use latter and 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, but the former’s tuition was cheaper. (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.

former vs latter meaningA 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.

Summary

Former is the first of two mentioned things.

Latter is the second of two mentioned things.