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This is about a TV drama series. My sentence is

"I prefer the last show to the current one."

Can I use the previous one, or the former one instead of the last one?

Then how about one which was aired long before, but I'm not sure when? Can I say

"I prefer a previous one" or
"... a former one."

Another example is about my coworker. I quit the job, so she is not my coworker anymore. In that case, how do I refer to her—as my previous coworker, my former coworker or my old coworker? I looked these words up in the dictionary, but I'm not sure yet.

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The word former refers to state. It means that the person or object was something, but no longer is. The word "former" only refers to sequence in special cases where it is contrasted with the word "latter" (in which it means the first of two given items).

The word previous refers to sequence. It means that the person or object was/did something before something else took over or replaced it. As StoneyB rightly clarifies in his comment, "the previous" means the directly preceding member in a series, however "a previous" can refer to any earlier member in the series.

The word last, in this context, means the same as "previous", but is only used to refer to the immediately preceding item. (Jay warns that "last" can be ambiguous as it is also used to refer to the final entry in a series.)

Thus, you can say "former coworker" of someone who is no longer a coworker. However, the word "previous" means the one before the current, so saying "previous coworker" or "last coworker" does not make sense unless you had a coworker and they were replaced.

Referring to TV series, you can say that you preferred the "previous" or "last" show, and this would refer to the show immediately preceding the current show. You cannot say the "former" show in this context.

When referring to a show that aired earlier than the immediate previous, you can say "a previous show". Otherwise, you can be more specific. Depending on the circumstances, you might say "the first show", or "one of the earlier shows", or "episode ten", or simply "one of the older shows". You could even say something like "five episodes earlier".

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    Note that "last" can mean the final member of a series, or the member immediately preceding the current one. For example, if there was a TV series of which a total of 20 episodes were made, and you have just watched episode 8 with a friend and you then say, "That wasn't a bad episode, but I think the last one was the best", that sentence is ambiguous: You might be referring to episode 20, or to episode 7. It's usually clear which you mean from context, but it's a funny word to have that ambiguity. – Jay May 30 '13 at 15:44
  • @Jay: Very true. I have added a warning about this in my answer. – Stephan May 30 '13 at 16:13
  • Thank you for the very detailed explanation. Then I just wondered if it is all right to say "my old coworker" instead of "my former coworker". – tennis girl May 31 '13 at 0:07
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    Though "my old co-worker" might be thought to mean "my elderly co-worker", as opposed to "my young co-worker". I would be very cautious about referring to a woman as "my old co-worker"! English can really bite you on some of these odd ambiguities. I don't know how other languages compare. – Jay Jun 3 '13 at 15:13
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    One thing you miss is that "I loved the last episode of <insert a TV show here>!" depends on whether the series is completed or not. If the series has completed, you're referring to the final episode. If the series is current, you're referring to the episode that most recently aired. You mention it referring to "the show immediately preceding the current one" but that's a tricky distinction that depends on context, and I'd probably compare "the latest episode" to "the previous" or "the prior" one if I meant the show preceeding the latest show. – Wayne Feb 12 '14 at 22:21
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Please correct me if I'm mistaken, but in a different context, "previous" can also serve as the past of "last". For example:

On a questionnaire: "How many times did you have sexual intercourse in the last month?"

A report about the results of the questionnaire: "In 2012, respondents reported an average 2.7 intercourses in the previous month."

  • In English, 'last', 'this', 'previous', and even 'next' can be quite ambiguous. It can be a big problem when talking about 'this' Friday versus 'next' Friday -- depending on the customs and regional dialect they could be a week or even two apart. – Phil Perry May 29 '14 at 16:47

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