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I don’t know if it’s restricted to English.

If someone won a Grammy Award, even if he doesn’t win a Grammy Award, we can describe him as “He is a (previous) Grammy winner.”

But If someone taught students, but he doesn’t teach students, why don’t we describe him as “He is a (previous) teacher”?

11
  • Because there's no TV show for the Golden Apple Award. "He's a GAA winner." doesn't mean anything to anyone, and if it did it'd likely be mistaken for the antiquated award of the same name given to actors. You're comparing an apple to an orange; Grammy winning isn't a profession. No one says 'He's a previous actor.'
    – Mazura
    Sep 8 at 8:45
  • What's your native language? Sep 8 at 8:58
  • 1
    @theonlygusti Korean Sep 8 at 9:00
  • why don’t we describe him as “He is a (previous) teacher”? Don't we? There are a lot of unemployed teachers. Teacher is both a job and a title. I think teachers who are unemployed would be offended if they weren't called teacher anymore.
    – Pieter B
    Sep 8 at 9:42
  • 1
    Shouldn't your second sentence be more like: "If someone won a Grammy Award in the past, even if he doesn’t win another Grammy Award, we can describe him as “He is a (previous) Grammy winner.”"? Obviously, if the person had never won a Grammy Award (which could be implied by the second part of your sentence), they can't be a "Grammy winner".
    – MrWhite
    Sep 8 at 14:35
49

Compare these two definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary: the crucial difference is highlighted.

previous: happening or existing before something or someone else

former: of or in an earlier time; before the present time or in the past

It's also important to understand what award means.

award: a prize or an amount of money that is given to someone following an official decision

When somebody is awarded a degree, it's permanent: even if they lose the certificate, the official decision still stands, and they still have a degree. In the same way, somebody who has received a Grammy award is a Grammy award winner forever, even if they lose the sculpture.

Grammy awards are an annual event. Somebody who wins an award this year is a Grammy award winner. Somebody who won an award in a previous year (one before the current year) still has the award, and can still be described as a Grammy award winner, but also can be described as a previous Grammy award winner, to make it clear that their award was not this year (before something else). Because they are still Grammy award winners, you can't describe them as former Grammy award winners.

We refer to somebody that used to teach but no longer does so as a former teacher or as an ex-teacher, because they were a teacher before the present time, but they are no longer a teacher.

If a person used to teach you, and now they don't teach you but somebody else does, the first teacher is before somebody else, so you can describe them as "my previous teacher". In this case, it means the teacher before the current teacher.

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  • 5
    I would say former here because somehow in this context, ex connotes negatively...
    – Lambie
    Sep 7 at 14:51
  • 11
    You may also say they're a "retired teacher" if they were a teacher up until their retirement; to me "former teacher" suggests that they have left teaching for some other job. Sep 7 at 14:56
  • 6
    I'd say the distinction between "my previous teacher" and "my former teacher" is that in the "previous" case, you're only referring to the teacher immediately before your current one, whereas in the "former" case, you can refer to anyone who has ever been your teacher at any time in the past, regardless of how many other teachers you've had since. Note that this does not indicate whether or not they are still a teacher in this context, while "a former teacher" does tend to mean that they have left the profession. Sep 7 at 17:07
  • 2
    @theonlygusti as I explained, the Grammy award winner still has the award, and can still be described as a Grammy award winner. The handyman does not still work there after the award ceremony ends. He can be still described as a Grammy award handyman if it's likely that he'll be doing it again, and can also be described as a previous Grammy award handyman if somebody else is now doing the job. He cannot be described as "currently a Grammy award handyman". I never used the word currently.... I don't know where you got that idea from.
    – JavaLatte
    Sep 7 at 23:19
  • 2
    Related: I'm a former student at a college that occasionally and incorrectly refers to me as a former member, when the college statutes make clear that once a member, you remain a member for ever unless you're thrown out. Sep 9 at 9:02
23

The distinction here is between whether the title is describing something that someone is currently doing, or something that has been achieved:

A teacher is someone who is currently teaching, and a student is someone who is currently studying. When they stop, they become a "former teacher" or "ex-teacher".

A Grammy Award winner is someone who has won that award - they are not currently in the process of winning it, and nobody is going to take it away from them later. They will not generally be referred to as a "former Grammy Award winner" or "ex-Grammy Award winner", because the achievement doesn't have an end date.

The form "a previous Grammy Award winner" actually means something slightly different - they are "the winner of a previous Grammy Award". That is, they are still a winner, but they are not the winner of the most recent award. You can similarly say "the 2019 Grammy Award winner", that is "the winner of the 2019 Grammy Award".

We could actually include a third category: titles which only apply until someone takes them from you. For instance, if you break a World Record, you are a World Record holder continuously regardless of what you do; but someone else can break the record, and you will no longer be the World Record holder. This makes it like the teacher case, rather than like the award-winner case - you can be a "former World Record holder".

5
  • Moreover, in the case of world (or other) records, over time, as the record gets broken, there is a sequence of record holders. This means that we may speak of both "a former holder" of the record, and more specifically "the previous holder" (i.e. the one whose record the current holder broke).
    – Rosie F
    Sep 7 at 17:04
  • 1
    @RosieF Interesting point - I think that brings in an extra distinction between "a previous X" and "the previous X". This year, we might call Rio 2016 "the previous Summer Olympics", but both that and London 2012 would be "a previous Summer Olympics". "He is the previous record holder" definitely works, but I'm not sure if "He is a previous record holder" does.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 7 at 17:13
  • @IMSoP FWIW "He is a previous record holder" sounds quite natural to me. It could refer to any person who held the record at some time prior to when the current record was set - basically the same meaning as with "former".
    – David Z
    Sep 7 at 22:03
  • I'll point out that there is to some degree an exception for martial arts teachers, where tracking a lineage of teachers is important. Even if they're not teaching anymore, the person who taught you martial arts is still your teacher.
    – nick012000
    Sep 8 at 6:49
  • Yes, this is the right answer: "previous" modifies "award", not "winner". Sep 10 at 7:57
6

Getting a Grammy is an achievement. Being a teacher is an employment. Having a title. (A title is a word or phrase that shows a person’s rank or job).


Olympian: a competitor in the Olympic Games, just like your Grammy winner has achieved something and that will always remain so. Your teacher is also likely to be a graduate; (a person who has a first degree from a university or college) or even more qualified. They might have retired from teaching but they are still a graduate.


When you no longer follow a previous occupation you are no longer referred to by the name of that vocation, unless it was accompanied by a title.

Colonel, President, Doctor (of philosophy). Official titles are usually retained for life. Former President Clinton is still Mr President. Unless the title is revoked for example, Prince Harry formerly His Royal Highness The Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton and Baron Kilkeel; before his HRH was revoked. Military titles usually denote if the holder is in active service or retired. Example, Colonel E. Smith (retd)

7
  • "Unless the title is revoked (Example Prince Harry)" Is he no longer a prince?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 7 at 11:32
  • @Mari-Lou A He is still a prince , That is why I wrote (Example Prince Harry) but Prince is not the title that has been revoked, that is HRH, cheatsheet.com/entertainment/…
    – Brad
    Sep 7 at 12:11
  • 1
    "Former President Clinton is still Mr President" - today I learned ... I think that last paragraph is probably a bit dense, though, and likely to confuse the reader more than it helps. I also disagree with the first paragraph: the examples in the questions are great examples of the difference you explain in the next paragraph.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 7 at 14:27
  • @IMSoP Advice taken
    – Brad
    Sep 8 at 1:37
  • @ Mari-Lou A you are quite correct, that was what I was referring too. I forget that users are not all English. That is a big fault on my part my apologise.
    – Brad
    Sep 8 at 1:41
2

The word you’re looking for is former, for example, “She is a former teacher.” Some other ways to express this are:

  • He used to be a teacher.
  • She was formerly a teacher,
  • He is an ex-teacher.
  • She is now an administrator, but was previously a teacher.
  • He was a teacher until he retired.

In American English, one of the times we can say a previous when these is a position held by a series of people, one at a time. This especially applies if it’s an award. So, someone who was a Grammy winner in the past is a previous Grammy winner. Michael Phelps and Simone Biles are previous Olympic gold medalists (in different events). And someone who won a Teacher of the Year Award in the past is “a previous Teacher of the Year.” You can also say “former” here.

When you say the previous person (or team), you’re referring to the last person to do so before now, so (as of 2021) the Milwaukee Bucks are the current NBA Champions (in 2021), the LA Lakers are the previous champions (in 2020), and many teams are former champions (before 2021).

1

It's to do with the meanings of the words. Unfortunately English dictionaries are too terse to specify these definitions, but phrases like "winner" and "world record breaker" have the meaning "someone who wins or has won something", "someone who breaks a world record or has broken a world record". As soon as you achieve these statuses at least once, you retain them and can still be called a "winner" or "record breaker" in present tense, because the fact it was achieved in the past is how English listeners understand the word.

But phrases like "teacher" and "world record holder" are temporary statuses, having only the meaning "someone who currently teaches", "someone who currently holds the world record".

English

  • Correct: Usain Bolt won a gold medal in 2012. Usain Bolt is a gold medal winner
  • Incorrect: Hugh Jackman was a teacher in 1986. Hugh Jackman is a teacher.

This effect isn't English-only, I know of some other languages that also have classes of permanent-once-achieved statuses (like "winner") for which present tense can always be used after gaining the status, and temporary statuses (like "teacher") for which the tense matters depending on the person's: in Spanish the Hugh Jackman/Usain Bolt example is directly translatable, in French there's no word for "winner" as it's used here (afaik) but you have other examples like "président" (temporary) and "professeur" (permanent post-PhD). Icelandic can directly translate the above Hugh Jackman/Usain Bolt example, as can Dutch.

Since dictionaries don't tell you, how can you know whether a status belongs to the permanent-once-achieved category or the temporary category? As with lots of things in English, only by paying attention to common usage. However I came up with a heuristic that might go part of the way to explain the categorisation of the verb + er words your question is about: if the verb is something that happens once and only for a single instant, then the -er word derived from it is permanent-once-achieved. For example, "winner" comes from "to win" which only happens at the single instant of winning. "World record breaker" comes from "to break", which you only do at the single instant of breaking the record. However, "teacher" comes from "to teach" which happens continuously; you teach a class for many instances of time in a row, it's ongoing. Similarly "world record holder" comes from "to hold", and you can hold an object in your hands for many instances of time in a row; it's another continuous verb.

So, "winner" can be applied after-the-fact unlike "teacher" because the words have different meanings. "Winner" is "someone who wins or has won something", "teacher" is "someone who teaches". Since these meanings aren't always thoroughly documented in the dictionary, you learn them by observing common English usage or (tentatively) through the heuristic that verbs for continuous actions (like teaching) derive temporary statuses, and verbs for instantaneous actions (like winning) derive permanent-once-achieved statuses. This effect doesn't seem to be restricted to English.

1
  • Somewhat philosophically, you could say that someone who thinks of themselves as a teacher, considers it a part of their identity, can still be referred to as a teacher long after they leave that post. This can be used for dramatic effect. Sep 8 at 18:32

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