7

I say 'a third item' because I mean that there are three instead of a common two.

For example, you could say

The two best 3d printers are xxxx and xxxx.

and the first item could be referred to as the former, and the second the latter.

But what if there were three items?

The three best 3d printers are xxxx, xxxx and xxxx.

Would the first be the former and the last the latter, or would the second still be the latter and the third something different? Or, would you just leave the whole former-latter matter behind and just use first, second and third? Any help would be appreciated.

  • 1
    I would leave the whole former-latter matter behind. First, second and third(or last) is fine. Any reason why you want to use it? – user3169 Dec 22 '14 at 4:46
  • I agree use former/latter only when referring to two items, and use ordinal numbers, first, second, third, etc when there are more than two items. – user6951 Dec 22 '14 at 8:57
8

The former and latter applies only to first and last things. No matter how many things are in between. Note that using 'former' and 'latter' is commonest when you describe two things. And thus, to avoid ambiguity, it's better to leave them off as they are.

Read 'latter's' definition here on OALD

being the second of two things, people or groups that have just been mentioned, or the last in a list

If you want to refer to those three printers, better mention their names.

The three best 3D printers are HP, Google, and Canon. While HP seems to be costly, Canon is cheaper. Google, I'm not sure about!

A typical use of former and latter would be-

The two best 3D printers are HP and Canon. While the former is costly, the latter is cheaper.

The 'latter' would imply to the last one irrespective of how many things you have.

The three best 3D printers are HP, Google, and Canon. The latter one is the cheapest (Canon)

  • Dictionary.com seems to accept 'lattermost' as an alternative, and I've heard it in common usage, although it's arguably redundant. – lea Dec 22 '14 at 8:49
  • It seems the ODO is more strict, or at least more detailed, than the OALD. The ODO stresses that former/latter is for comparing two things. See the link to former. It says using former-latter for more than two items as unacceptable. – user6951 Dec 22 '14 at 9:08
4

Short answer: Use the former-latter when talking about two things. And use the first, second, third when referring to an item in a list of three.

Traditionally, the former and the latter are used only when referring to two items.

This is upheld by multiple definitions in thefreedictionary. See its entries for former amd for latter. Notice the usage notes, especially the ones given in the definitions by Collins.

The Oxford Dictionary online (ODO) vigorously supports this usage. I quote in full. Notice the last sentence.

Usage

Traditionally, former and latter are used in relation to pairs of items: either the first of two items (former) or the second of two items (latter). The reason for this is that former and latter were formed as comparatives, and comparatives are correctly used with reference to just two things, while a superlative is used where there are more than two things. So, for example, strictly speaking one should say the longest of the three books but the longer of the two books. In practice, former and latter are now sometimes used just as synonyms for first and last and are routinely used to refer to a contrast involving more than two items. Such uses, however, are not acceptable in good English style.

The Oxford Learners Dictionary defines the former as

used to refer to the first of two things or people mentioned

and latter as

being the second of two things, people or groups that have just been mentioned, or the last in a list

Note that Oxford here does not have a usage note. So I think it is a disservice to learners to omit a usage note, or to provide a definition that contradicts the one given in its own ODO.

Given the strong note in the ODO, the strong usage note by Collins, and the definitions given by the other dictionaries, I would go with using the former-latter only when talking about two things. And use ordinal numbers, first, second, third when referring to an item in list of three.

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