September 2, 2010
Weekly Language Usage Tips: former and latter & clearer or more clear (comparatives)
Tip 1: Former and latter
We analyzed the results of the survey comparing people’s preferences for dogs versus cats and found that while women were evenly divided, the majority of men preferred the former over the latter.
Huh? Sometimes the words we use make the meaning of what we are trying to convey clearer, and sometimes they create confusion. I’d put the words, former and latter, into (ahem) the latter category. In fact, for the most part, I would avoid using these words altogether. My reasoning is that by using these words, we force the reader to work a bit harder; the reader either has to remember the sentence or look back at it to correctly identify the referent. Since our main motives in writing are often to obtain funding (through grant proposals) or become published (through manuscripts), we want to make the reader’s life or often, the reviewer’s life, as easy as possible. As a result, repeating the words or rephrasing the sentence is preferable to using ‘former’ and ‘latter.’
However, if you must use ‘former’ and ‘latter,’ there are a few things to note. First, you should only use ‘former’ and ‘latter’ when you are referring to two things; if you are referring to more than two items, you must use ‘first and ‘last.’ While you will sometimes encounter these words used in the context of three or more things, it creates a lot of confusion and, besides that, it is just wrong. Second, for some reason, the two words are often confused, that is ‘latter’ often refers to the first thing mentioned. I don’t understand this confusion, but it is mentioned often enough that I tend to believe it happens. Remember, f is for first and former and l is for last and latter. Finally, it is okay to use one term without the other:
After vacationing in both the mountains and the seashore, I decided that my heart was really with the latter.
But, as I said, your best bet is to avoid using them at all.
Tip 2: Clearer or more clear
When I was writing the first sentence in Tip 1, I was sorely tempted to word the sentence this way:
Sometimes the words we use make the meaning of what we are trying to convey more clear, and sometimes they create confusion.
I didn’t because I didn’t want to confuse anyone who used the old rule of forming comparatives that states that in adjectives of one or two syllables, you add ‘er’ to the word to form the comparative adjective (e.g., nicer), and in words with multiple syllables, you use the word, ‘more’ (e.g., more beautiful).
As I’ve written before (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/comparatives-and-superlatives/), this is a rule of thumb, and there is no hard and fast rule on how to form a comparative adjective; for the most part, we depend on our ear to tell us whether to use ‘more’ or ‘er.’
So, either version of my sentence is correct-using either ‘clearer’ or ‘more clear.’
But then, when looking at another University’s writing page, I saw that someone had formalized the rule, and the site stated that ‘more clear’ is WRONG; all words of one to two syllables need to be made into comparatives by adding ‘er.’ That got my dander up.
Balderdash! Complete tripe and utter nonsense!
You can form the comparative by EITHER adding ‘er’ to the adjective or adding the word, ‘more.’ It’s the writer’s call, and don’t let some old editor intimidate you! If anyone is going to intimidate you, I want it to be me!
What about adjectives like apt? Are we going to say apter? Don’t be daft. I’d look askance at dafter, too. Just relax, and listen to the sound your words make. Choose whichever sounds right to you. You can’t go wrong.