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.
‘The latter’ is a noun with three definitions, according to Merriam-Webster.
The word ‘latter’ on its own without the word ‘the’ preceding it is an adjective.
The definitions of this word are:
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.
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:
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:
‘Latter,’ on the other hand, is used to describe the second item listed in a series of two.
‘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.”
How would ‘the latter’ be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:
‘The latter’ is a phrase that has three definitions, which are:
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.’
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