Word usage: Latter vs. later

I came across this sentence at work yesterday:

That should be ‘later’, right?

I questioned it and the response I received was:

I think in this case ‘latter’ is used incorrectly. It seems to me that it’s more appropriate to use ‘latter’ when making a comparison…not just saying ‘do it later.’

Acceptable but lame.

You are correct. “Later” is used when referring to time. “Latter” is used when referring to the subsequent of two items, things, words, etc. that were previously mentioned by the writer.

I find the latter intuitive, but if you didn’t learn it as a child, you’ll need to study it later. :wink:


Acceptable only if you’ve recently sustained a blow to the head, maybe.

I would move to change it and if they argued, I’d say it’s only in the interest of eliminating further e-mails from well-meaning users correcting the spelling. And then I’d chuckle malevolently to myself.

Thanks for the confirmation…what makes it better is that I can actually PICTURE the guy who replied putting on close-eye-raised-eyebrows-upturned-nose smugface.

It’s fun to win with folks like that :smiley:

Nothing like starting the week off with a malevolent chuckle…

Not acceptable. “Latter” requires a comparison of at least 2 items.

No, it doesn’t.

Only if you have two dates and want to specify the second.

Dubious. Works best if you first describe the two parts of the day.

Well, several online dictionaries (I only checked a few of those) do say that “latter” can be used to mean later [in time], at least in some contexts, and “latter” really seems to have begun as just a variant spelling of “later”. Certainly the “latter part of the day,” and similar expressions, seem to be widely accepted (even when two parts of the day have not been previously explicitly mentioned). I myself would not write (or say) “Please try again at a latter time” (or, indeed “at a latter date”), but I am not sure that you are on really solid ground in rejecting them. It may be more a matter of poor style than outright malapropism.

I have a latter I am using to paint the house.

Musicat is correct. Latter meaning later in time is only applicable to the second of two events described by the person using “latter.” The problem here may be that a lazy writer used “latter” (or even typoed it) when he/she should have used “later,” then went back and looked up the justification once called on it. It can indeed be used to indicate “later in time,” but only in context of two events listed. (Which that writer isn’t getting, and the citation might not clarify).

A latter time is, by default, compared to the current time.

I’m not selling it; I feel it is lame, but it is acceptable.

Sure, if you write or say “the latter part of the day” you are contrasting it to the former, earlier part of the day, but this can be implicit. When you are talking about time, you do not have to explicitly mention the former, earlier time, because everyone knows that there always must be a former, earlier time (unless you are immediately after the Big Bang, I guess). [ETA: I am responding to Sailboat here. I think Philster and I are in agreement.]

“Latter” did not get used to refer to a later time period by mistake. I would lay long odds that they were originally variant spellings/pronunciations of the same word. At some point in their history the variants began to be used differentially in different contexts, but the separation in meaning is far from complete. Indeed, although it might seem odd and potentially confusing,* few people would actually misunderstand you if you were to use “earlier” and “later” rather than “former” and “latter” even when you are referring to two previously mentioned items that are not temporally successive (except, of course, that they are temporally successive within the relevant passage of speech or writing).

Nevertheless, Sicks Ate is right to feel that what his colleague originally wrote is awkward.

*Very often, though, to use “former” and “latter”, even in the most punctiliously “correct” way, is to risk confusing your hearer of reader. When I see them, more often than not I have to stop look back over the text to remind myself what is actually being referred to.

Ummm… so:

Would be okay?

Well, it would be no more absurd than “PLEASE RETRY QUERY AT AN EARLIER TIME”!


There’s probably a reason why I don’t handle dialog box texts.

Even better:

Not necessarily absurd:

All queries must be submitted by 9:00 PM.
Please retry query at an earlier time.

I agree - not outright wrong, but not good either.

It’s one of the things we learned in high school newspaper - write what your reader expects to see. If the reader thinks you made a mistake, you don’t usually get a chance to explain yourself.

Srsly… That’s pretty much what they told me, down at the Registrar’s office, when I was one lousy day late registering to vote.

(Next time, try coming back yesterday.)

I ended up doing the “provisional” ballot thingy. So maybe I voted.

I’ll concurr with the “programmer is a Bozo” crowd.

Former and latter are used to refer to two choices (usually mentioned, in order, previously in the discussion). “Former” meant the first one, “latter” meant the second one. Yes, there is a variant where someone refers to “the latter part of the day”, but that is in the context of the day having two parts, the earlier is the former, and the latter is the later; or “latter half”, say - for example “the earlier part of the presentation” is the former part (much less common useage) and towards the end is the “latter part of the presentation”. So it can refer to time periods, and be somewhat ambiguous as to exact start and finish; but still, “latter” is only used in the context of “the second of two parts”, not as in “later, afterwards”.