Latter

What Does "Latter" Mean?

The word "latter" best translates as "the second one of the two." It is used to identify the second list item in a recently mentioned two-item list. For example:
  • I have a motorbike and a car. I prefer the latter.
  • (In this example, two things are listed: "a motorbike" and "a car." "The latter" identifies the second one of the two, "a car.")

"The latter one"

Table of Contents

  • Why "Latter" Identifies the Last of Two
  • "Former" and "Latter"
  • Grammatical Usage
  • Example Sentences with "the Latter" As a Noun Phrase
  • Example Sentences with "Latter" As an Adjective
  • Test Time!

Why "Latter" Identifies the Last of Two

The word "latter" derives from the Old English "lætra," which is the comparative form of "laet" (meaning "late"). In contemporary English, "latter" is still a comparative adjective because it literally means "the later." This is an important point because it explains why "latter" is best used with a list of two things and not more than two.

Here's the grammar: The comparative form compares two things. The superlative form compares more than two things. For example:
  • Of apples and pear, apples are the better.
  • ("Better" is the comparative form.)
  • Of apples, pear, and bananas, apples are the best.
  • ("Best" is the superlative form.)
Therefore – from a pedantic, technical, grammatical perspective – if we wanted a word to identify the last one in a list of more than two things, we'd need a word that derived from the superlative form of "laet," which would now translate "the latest" (not "the later").

That was a rather technical explanation of why "latter" is best used with two things. Nowadays, however, only a strict pedant would notice and care if you used it with more than two. So, using "latter" to identify "the last item mentioned" in a list of any length is now acceptable.

"The latter one"

Nevertheless, when dealing with more than two list items, you should consider words like "last" and "final" to avoid criticism and confusion. You might think that confusion would not be possible, but actually it could be because another nuanced meaning is emerging for "latter." In addition to "the second of two," the Oxford English Dictionary now offers the meaning "situated or occurring nearer to the end of something than to the beginning."

"Not the green one, the latter one"

So, if you mention "the latter" and you've been discussing other items in your list, your readers could be unsure whether you're talking about the last list item or the next list item along.

"Former" and "Latter"

The antonym of "latter" is "former," which typically identifies the first of two things.

"The former one"

Grammatical Usage

In the following example, the term "the latter" is a noun phrase. It has a pronominal function (i.e., it acts like pronoun ) because it refers back to the noun "London" (called its antecedent).
  • I like Paris and London, but I prefer the latter.
  • ("London" is the antecedent of "the latter.")
In the following example, "latter" is an adjective. When used as an adjective, "the latter" often translates as "the second" or "the later."
  • I will move house in the latter half of the year.
former and latter

Example Sentences with "the Latter" As a Noun Phrase

Here are some example sentences with "latter." They all feature a list of two things, so there are no issues.
  • Between watching a play and reading a play, I always choose the latter. correct tick
  • We heard from advocates of environmental conservation and economic growth. Jack supports the latter. correct tick
  • The seminar covered two topics: technology and art. The students showed more interest in the latter. correct tick
  • During the course, they taught us traditional and digital painting techniques. I was far better at the latter. correct tick
Here are examples with more than two things with potential options:
  • The seminar covered three topics: technology, sports, and art. The students showed most interest in the latter. wrong cross
  • (Everyone would know this refers to "art," but technically it is an error.)
  • The seminar covered three topics: technology, sports, and art. The students showed most interest in the last one. correct tick (but clumsy)
  • (Everyone would know this refers to "art," and grammar pedants would be happy. However, it sounds clumsy to the native ear.)
  • The seminar covered three topics: technology, sports, and art. The students showed most interest in art. correct tick
  • (Repeating the noun is sometimes a sound option.)
  • The seminar covered three topics: technology, sports, and art. There were a lot questions about technology, but there was most interest in the latter. wrong cross (ambiguous)
  • (If we take into consideration the new definition of "latter," this could feasibly refer to "sports" or "art.")

Example Sentences with "Latter" As an Adjective

  • They encountered a few unexpected challenges in the latter stages of the project. correct tick
  • Jill's health improved in the latter part of the year. correct tick
  • The book's latter chapters are more engaging than the earlier ones. correct tick
  • Jack showed more interest in the latter half of the course. correct tick
  • The latter part of the 19th century was marked by rapid industrialization. correct tick
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This page was written by Craig Shrives.