“The Latter”: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on March 22, 2023

Did you come across the phrase ‘the latter’ and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, examples, and more.

In brief:

  • ‘The latter’ is a phrase that typically refers to the second item listed in a series of two, with the first item being known as ‘the former.’
  • In some cases, it can also be used to refer to the last thing or person mentioned in a series or a thing or person that has just been mentioned.

Definition of 'The Latter': What Does It Mean?

‘The latter’ is a noun with three definitions, according to Merriam-Webster.

These are:

  • “The second one of two things or people that have been mentioned”
  • “The thing or person that has just been mentioned”
  • “The last thing or person mentioned”

The word ‘latter’ on its own without the word ‘the’ preceding it is an adjective.

The definitions of this word are:

  • “Belonging to a subsequent time or period: more recent; of or relating to the end; recent, present”
  • “Of, relating to, or being the second of two groups or things or the last of several groups or things referred to”

You might be surprised to learn that the use of the phrase ‘the latter’ is a bit controversial in the literary world. Some people believe that ‘the latter’ should only be used when discussing a series that consists of two items, as in the following example:

“We can have either steak or chicken for dinner– would you prefer the former or the latter?”

When discussing a series of items of three or more, these individuals contest that the word ‘last’ should be used rather than ‘latter’ to highlight the final item in the series, as in this example:

“We went to the park, the movies, and out to dinner, but the last left much to be desired.”

That being said, ‘latter’ is certainly used to draw attention to the final item in a series of three or more items. You will find that most modern dictionaries make mention of using the phrase ‘the latter’ in reference to lists of three or more items.

The Latter Vs. the Former

In many instances, you will see the phrase ‘the latter’ used in conjunction with the phrase ‘the former.’

When used in relation to a series that contains two items, the first item is ‘the former’ while the second item is ‘the latter.’

Here’s an example sentence to make this a bit more clear:

“He wants to spend the weekend lounging on the beach and drinking mai tais. I’m not opposed to the former, but I’m really not interested in wasting my time with the latter.

In this sentence, ‘the former’ refers to ‘lounging on the beach’ while ‘the latter’ refers to ‘drinking mai tais.’

Here’s an easy tip for remembering which item in a series of two is the former and which is the latter:

  • The former: The first three letters of ‘former’ are ‘for,’ which can bring to mind ‘before,’ meaning it’s the item before the second item
  • The latter: ‘Latter’ is only one letter away from ‘later,’ which can bring to mind its meaning as the later of the two items

Latter Vs. Ladder

Before moving on to the origin of ‘the latter’ and example sentences, let’s discuss the difference between ‘latter’ and ‘ladder.’

These two words are homophones, meaning that they have different meanings but similar pronunciations.

The word ‘ladder’ is defined by the Oxford Languages dictionary as:

  • “A structure consisting of a series of bars or steps between two upright lengths of wood, metal, or rope, used for climbing up or down something.”

‘Latter,’ on the other hand, is used to describe the second item listed in a series of two.

Where Does 'The Latter' Come From?

‘Latter’ comes from the Old English word lætra, which means “slower.” From around the year 1200, this word possessed the meaning of “belonging to a subsequent period.” The first recording of the current sense of the word– “that has been mentioned second of two, or last” shows up in the 1550s.

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that ‘the latter’ has actually become less popular in its usage since the 1800s. It was used rather steadily throughout the nineteenth century but had been declining ever since roughly the turn of the 20th century.

Since the Google Books Ngram Viewer only goes back to 1800, it doesn’t offer access to publications from before this date. However, it is clear that the phrase was already in common usage well before 1800.

One example from 1801 uses the phrase several times throughout the text, as well as in the title. Here is an excerpt from A Tour Through the Batavian Republic During the Latter Part of the Year 1800:

“I shall therefore probably when I meet with objects which please me, speak of them as belonging to the United Provinces, or the contrary as belonging to the Batavian republic. I have no disinclination to admit that the latter appellation is the most classical; but I am sorry that name should be abolished, which was bestowed on this country by those heroes who most vigorously defended their liberties against the gigantic forces of the Spanish monarchy, and established a wife and salutary system of freedom, which became the admiration of surrounding nations.”

Here’s another example of the use of the phrase ‘the latter’ from the beginning of the nineteenth century, found in a text called Sir John Froissart’s Chronicles of England, France, and the Adjoining Countries, From the Latter Part of the Reign of Edward II to the Coronation of Henry IV, newly translated and published in 1803:

“He was never married. Elizabeth and Eleanor, two of his sisters, (the latter being the wife of Sir Roger Collins) and Isabella, daughter to Margaret the third sister, at that time married to Sir John Annesley, were found to be his next heirs.”

Examples of 'The Latter' In Sentences

How would ‘the latter’ be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Mrs. Sanders said that we can have a chicken sandwich or a tuna sandwich for lunch today. I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the latter.”
  • Everyone said that college would be so much better than high school, but looking back, I honestly preferred the latter.”
  • “As for the soup and the salad, there is way too much salt in the former and not enough dressing on the latter.”
  • “My co-worker relayed a message from our boss: we can stay late on Friday or come in on Saturday morning. Neither option is particularly appealing, but I guess the latter is worse than the former.”
  • “I brought you some chicken soup and saltine crackers– I know you’ve been feeling sick. What would you like to start with? The former or the latter?”
  • “I’m hoping to get some recognition at work along with a raise, but honestly, the latter is basically a pipedream.”
  • “I know Sally is coming from a good place, but she drives me absolutely mad. I’m not sure if it’s her relentless positivity or her incessant chatter. If I had to pick one of the two, I’d say it’s the latter that really gets to me.”

Final Thoughts About 'The Latter'

‘The latter’ is a phrase that has three definitions, which are:

  • “The second item of two people or things that have been mentioned”
  • “The person or thing that has just been mentioned”
  • “The last person or thing mentioned.”

In most cases, you will hear and see ‘the latter’ used to describe the second item of a series of two, with the first item being known as ‘the former.’

Are you ready to learn more English words and phrases? Check out our idioms blogs for idioms, expressions, sayings, and much more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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