September 2, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: former and latter & clearer or more clear (comparatives)

Posted in clearer/more clear, comparative adjectives/adverbs, comparatives and superlatives, former/latter at 6:35 am by dlseltzer

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 (, 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.



  1. Anonymous said,

    I googled Language former and latter and was guided to your blog. What a great explanation. Reading it was like having a conversation. Also the bonus explanation of more .vs -er was appreciated.
    I would like to receive updates as I am confident that my language skills deteriorate exponentially as each year passes.

  2. Anonymous said,

    Super helpful post! Although I still don’t like the sound of “clearer” and prefer to say “more clear”.

  3. Maritn said,

    How about the connection between two words that we are reffering to via “former” and “latter”? Does it have to be words like “and”, “versus”, etc.? I mean otherwise it might not be easy to identify the two words that we are referring to, such as in the following example:

    “There were six chairs belonging to the small table.”
    Could “former, resp. “latter” here refer to “six chairs”, resp. “table”?
    “We saw a couple of policemen going out of the house.”
    Could “former, resp. “latter” here refer to “couple of policeman “, resp. “house”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      Could you clarify this? What does’resp.’ stand for?

  4. Maritn said,

    Oh, seems that “resp.” is only a mathematical jargon, I thought it was normally used:-) Here is the meaning:

    (Respectively) A convention to shorten parallel expositions. “A (resp. B) [has some relationship to] X (resp. Y)” means that A [has some relationship to] X and also that B [has (the same) relationship to] Y. For example, squares (resp. triangles) have 4 sides (resp. 3 sides); or compact (resp. Lindelöf) spaces are ones where every open cover has a finite (resp. countable) open subcover.

  5. Martin said,

    P.S. Small clarification: in my first example “six chairs belonging to the small table”, there is no “and” connector between “six chairs” and “small table”, but “belonging to”, so it is not a simple list of two items, which, to me, means that the usage of “former” and “latter” could lead to confusion. If not in this case, then certainly in the second example, where one could actually say that there are 3 items (we, couple of policemen, house).

    • dlseltzer said,

      Former – chairs, latter – table
      Former – policemen, latter – house

      The linking words don’t really matter, although’and’ is an obvious choice. I don’t think anyone would mistakenly select ‘we’ as the former as policemen and house as objects have equal weight and are related. ‘We’ as the subject is not connected in any significant way.

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