Can you use earlier and later as adjectives? Here is a conversation I overheard this morning:

A: I was able to do two paintings yesterday.

B: Me, too. But the earlier one I had to re-do, because Professor C hated it.

Can you use earlier and later like this? I guess the person was using earlier as a short version of "the one I painted earlier," but I'm not sure if this usage is correct.

  • 1
    If I were speaking of something more directly related to time, this would sound okay to me. (Ex. "I was supposed to have two meetings today, but I had to cancel the earlier one so I would have time to prepare for the later one.") Meetings are inherently time-related; paintings aren't. So I know that this sounds wrong to me, but I can't guarantee it breaks any sort of rule (and I would understand it if I heard it, just as you did.) So I shall wait and see what others have to say about this!
    – WendiKidd
    Jul 12, 2013 at 22:27
  • Earlier and later are two different words, and what applies to one may not apply to the other. As a result, it doesn't make sense to write "the person was using earlier/later". They weren't; they were only using earlier. (It's still fine to ask about both earlier and later, of course!)
    – user230
    Jul 12, 2013 at 22:45

3 Answers 3


Early and earlier (and also late/later) can all be used as adjectives, but whilst earlier and later are usually used to describe the relative occurance of an event to another (perhaps implied) event, early and late are used to describe the absolute occurance of an event on a (often implied) timeline.

For example, when considering a collection of paintings:

This is a nice painting, but I prefer your earlier paintings

This statement states that the author prefers paintings that were created before the current painting. This contrasts with the statement:

This is a nice painting, but I prefer your early paintings

This statement on the other hand states that the author prefers paintings that were painted early on the unspecified but implied timeline of the artist's entire career.

Similarly, suppose the theatre has showings at 8 AM, 11 AM, 2:00 PM, 5 PM, 10PM, 11 PM and midnight. Then

I wasn't able to get tickets for the 11PM showing, but I got tickets for a later showing

In this case, the tickets procured must be for the midnight showing, since this is the only showing that is later than 11PM.

On the other hand,

I wasn't able to get the tickets for the 11PM showing, but I got tickets for a late showing

In this case, the first clause is merely descriptive; tickets could not be obtained for the 11PM showing. The second clause stands alone stating that tickets could be obtained for a late showing, and hence the tickets might be for the midnight one OR the 10PM showing, since both are objectively "late showings". The 10PM showing is a late showing even though it is earlier than the 11PM showing.

When no separate comparative event is provided earlier and later mean the same as early and late, but are just less idiomatic; assuming no other context, the following two sentences are equivalent:

I prefer Mozart's earlier works

I prefer Mozart's early works (preferable)

Be aware that late as an adjective also has the meaning dead that the adjective later does not have:

The late Oscar Wilde was a very witty man.

(X) The later Oscar Wilde was a very witty man

And finally there are certain idioms where the choice of "late/later" and "early/earlier" is fixed. In these cases, you should not substitute late for later or early for earlier (or vv):

The early bird catches the worm!

(X) The earlier bird catches the worm!


It's OK. Early and late may act as either adjectives or adverbs.

The early bird catches the worm, because it rises early, before the other birds get a chance.
We call it The Late Show, because it plays late at night.

  • 3
    Hmm. Do you think there's a bit of an idiomatic preference to when these sound right or wrong? To me personally, both of your examples sound fine, but the one in the OP's question sounds strange. And I wouldn't refer to my firstborn as my earlier child, but I would refer to a meeting I cancelled this morning as an earlier meeting. What do you think?
    – WendiKidd
    Jul 12, 2013 at 22:29
  • @WendiKidd Well, your firstborn is of course more conventionally referred to as your "older" (or "elder") child. But I wrote my dissertation on the "early" plays of Bernard Shaw (it's right there in the subtitle), so using "early" with works of art sounds just fine to me. Jul 12, 2013 at 22:43
  • 2
    @StoneyB: I'm fine with an artist talking about his early work - so he can have earlier (and later) paintings. But for things produced on the same day, I'd much prefer plain old first. And can you really toggle early/earlier so casually? Jul 13, 2013 at 1:05
  • @WendiKidd: If I was talking about two paintings painted on the same day, I would probably distinguish them by using first, not earlier: But the first one I had to re-do, because Professor C hated it. I think that's maybe why it sounds odd. But earlier still works as an adjective: Of the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic eras, the Mesozoic is the earlier era.
    – J.R.
    Jul 13, 2013 at 1:35
  • 1
    @J.R. Agreed; I think there are some cases where earlier clearly works well as an adjective, but the OP's case in particular doesn't sound right to me.
    – WendiKidd
    Jul 13, 2013 at 1:37

Yes, you can use earlier and later as adjectives; just that, the usage has to be correct. I think But I had to re-do the earlier one, because Professor C hated it sounds more correct.

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