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What’s the Difference Between “Former” and “Latter”?

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Perhaps you’ve come across “the former” and “the latter” in a sentence, but you’re not sure what they mean. We’re here to clear everything up with helpful explanations and examples so that you can learn how to use these phrases correctly.

White text over green background reads: Former vs latter.
“Former” and “latter” have multiple meanings and uses.
“Former” vs. “Latter”: Quick Summary

The word former is used to refer to the first item in a group of two, while latter refers to the second (or last) item. When used in this sense, both words must be preceded by “the.”

  • We picked up the cake and balloons. Annette took the former to my aunt’s house, while George took the latter to the venue to help set up.

“Former” vs. “Latter”

There’s former.

There’s latter.

And then there’s the former and the latter.

This blog is dedicated to helping you understand how to use the phrases the former and the latter correctly, while also briefly reviewing what former and latter mean on their own.

Confused? Don’t worry! Keep reading, and you’ll see how easy it is to understand.

“The Former” and “The Latter”

Let’s begin by taking a look at the following sentence:

I like to travel to big cities and small towns; the former have a lively atmosphere, while the latter are more peaceful.

Former is used to refer to the first thing in a group or list of two, while latter refers to the second (or last) thing. In the example above, the former refers to big cities, and the latter refers to small towns.

Here’s a little trick to help you remember what these words mean:

  • Former = First
  • Latter = Last

There are a few things to keep in mind when using these phrases.

Firstly, be aware that they are only used when referring to two things. Most style guides advise against using them when mentioning more than two things.

We visited Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona. I enjoyed the former, while Joseph preferred the latter.

We visited Madrid and Barcelona. I enjoyed the former, while Joseph preferred the latter.

If you’re referencing more than two items, consider using other words like first, last, third, etc.

The family and I visited Disney World. We went to Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Magic Kingdom. The former was my favorite park, while Eli enjoyed the latter.

The family and I visited Disney World. We went to Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Magic Kingdom. The first park was my favorite, while Eli enjoyed the last one.

Additionally, these phrases can be used together within the same sentence or independently.

Sarah has two cats named Timmy and Jimmy; the former is orange, while the latter is black.
Sarah has two cats named Timmy and Jimmy. The former is orange and is my favorite.
Sarah has two cats named Timmy and Jimmy. The latter is black and is my favorite.

Lastly, it is sometimes recommended to avoid using these phrases in your writing. Why? Because doing so weakens the flow of your writing by forcing your audience to reread the sentence to figure out what the former and the latter refer to. These phrases tend not to be used in verbal communication because there’s nothing for the listener to go back and refer to.

What Does “Former” Mean?

The word former has a few other uses. As an adjective, former means “relating to or occurring in the past.”

After reading the book, I now wonder about my former lives.
We remodeled the library to bring it back to its former glory.
Physical therapy helped her move and dance like her former self.

It’s also used to describe someone that “used to have a certain position or status in the past.”

Jennifer is a former nurse who is now pursuing a career in law.
The city’s former mayor got impeached due to corruption charges.
He is a former football star, now retired and working as a sports commentator.

The adverb is formerly (be careful not to confuse it with formally).

The unit, which was formerly a store, was being converted into a small bar.

What Does “Latter” Mean?

Latter also has a few meanings. As we already mentioned, it can mean “the second (or last) of two things referred to.” But it can also mean “relating to the end of a period.”

Things started to smooth out during the latter phases of construction.
In their latter days, my grandparents spent every day tending to their garden.
During the latter stages of the tournament, many athletes were exhausted.

Conversely (and perhaps confusingly), latter also means “recent.” However, this usage is not as common.

Stephen’s earlier books were good, but his latter works were more thought-provoking.
The first season of the show was good, but the latter seasons weren’t as funny.
In latter years, the city’s population has grown exponentially.

“The Former and the Latter”: Examples

Here are a few more examples that contain the phrases the former and the latter.

Ruby is deciding between job offers at either the hospital or the dentist's office. The former has a higher salary, but the latter has more flexible hours.
The Smiths have two children, Lori and Landon. The former is a doctor, and the latter is an engineer.
My best friend is eager to learn Spanish and German. I will teach him the former, and my sister will teach him the latter.
I interviewed two candidates; the former was inexperienced, but the latter worked for a similar company for many years.
This restaurant only serves two options, pizza or pasta. I chose the former, and my girlfriend chose the latter.
Graphic shows a sentence that uses the former and the latter and arrows demonstrate which part of the sentence is what.
The graphic above illustrates what “the former” and “the latter” reference in a sentence. 

Using “Former” and “Latter” Correctly

When using the phrases the former and the latter, just remember that:

  • The former refers to the first in a group of two.
  • The latter refers to the last in a group of two.
  • Avoid using the former and the latter in your writing, as it can distract your readers.
  • Instead of using the former and the latter when referring to items in a group larger than two, try using words like first, second, last, etc.

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