First thing’s first: Former and latter are both terms that denote an item’s place in a two-part sequence. They usually appear in the sentence immediately following the sequence. Former refers back to the first of a set, while latter refers to the last item. An easy way to remember the difference is to recall that both former and first begin with an F, while both latter and last start with an L. Former and latter shouldn’t appear after lists that contain more than two items.
Former and Latter in Sequence
Take this example from The Young Student’s Companion: “I have a grey horse and a black horse; take the former, and send the latter to my brother.” Here, the former item in the list is a grey horse, and the latter item is a black horse. By using the terms in this way, the speaker manages to indicate which horse the listener should take and which should be sent to their brother without having to repeat the full description of each horse.
Both of these words have somewhat related secondary meanings.Former‘s secondary meaning is in reference to the past. For example, a new employee may be introduced as as “Jim, formerly of Very Big Corporation,” with the clear meaning that he’s no longer an employee there. Similarly, Jimmy Carter is a former president in that he stopped being president in 1981.
Latter‘s second meaning is also a reference to the vague location of an event in time, rather than in a sequence. The full name of the Mormon Church, for example, is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” Here, Latter-Day is a reference to a time period, and is almost synonymous with late.
Former and latter usually show up in formal or technical writing. It’s rare that either word appears in casual speech. This is partly because it sounds odd to modern listeners, but mostly because the audience can’t go back over the preceding sentence to double-check which item in a set is former and which is latter.