For example:

James was talking to Karl, the former being much smarter than the latter.

Is James the former or the latter? What is the rule?

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    I'm not sure why this question was asked here, when the answer is so easily and readily found. – J.R. Jan 26 '13 at 10:23
  • @J.R. It's asked here because I don't want to have to keep referring to a dictionary every time I want to know whether to use former or latter. If I know the rule then that is a lot easier to remember than some dictionary definition. – Matt Ellen Jan 26 '13 at 12:53
  • If that's the case, then I think your question would have been much improved had you elaborated about how you often confuse the two, and are looking for a handy, memorable way to keep the two straight. As it is, you've simply asked us to clarify something very basic. Notice, too, that the results I linked to (like this one and this one) are not dictionary definitions, but easily found mnemonic tricks with detailed explanations. – J.R. Jan 26 '13 at 14:53

Basically: "former" = "first item in a pair", "latter" = "second item in a pair".

So, in your case, "the former" is James, while "the latter" is Karl.

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The mnemonic I learned in school was (F)ormer is (F)irst and (L)atter is (L)ast, so James is the former and Karl is the latter.

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"Former" comes before, and "latter" comes later.

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  • 4
    Except when you're asking about the latter and the former, in which case the former comes later, and the latter comes before. ;^) – J.R. Jan 26 '13 at 11:31
  • @J.R. -- +1 for the wink. I was, of course, trying to tie the pronunciations, but you've got me on the positioning aspect. – barbara beeton Jan 26 '13 at 13:27

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