Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

If we had an hour long discussion, and discussed 5 topics: A, B, C, D and E in order, to the extent that we are talking about "E" right now, if "D" is the latter, and "C" is the former, what is "B" to be called, following this "latter, former" syntax? Does such a word exist?

Bonus question: - What about A?

EDIT (for the regulars, the editors, the potential downvoters): If you think that "former" and "latter" are "only allowed to be used when referencing 2 objects", you're right, yes, "former" and "latter" are only to be used for referencing 2 objects. However, there is always a third object which comes before the former object. You say the former object came first per the definition of "latter" but that's obviously not true in all cases (conversations, interactions, etc). In some cases, the former object might want to reference it's antecedent if it indeed has one. If you've only had two prior interactions with a person, the former would indeed be the first. But if you've had three prior interactions, then there would be an object before the former, wouldn't there?

If now is t(0), then the latter is t(-1), the former is t(-2), and the word I'm looking for is t(-3). The bonus, of course, is t(-4).

share|improve this question
3  
Latter and former don't mean what you seem to think they do. –  Mark Beadles May 22 '12 at 1:10
    
What I want them to do, Mark. What I need them to do. I've run into this problem when discussing things with friends and professionals, sometimes you just need a third word after the "latter, former" series. People are getting smarter, Mark, we need these things. –  boulder_ruby May 22 '12 at 1:27
2  
@tchrist "foremost" is what you find for "formermost". –  Mark Beadles May 22 '12 at 2:15
4  
You've misunderstood how the two words work. There is no lexical gap here. 'Former' and'latter' work for a sequence of exactly two items. For more than two items, you can use ordinals and 'first' and 'last'. If you're using 'former' and 'latter' when talking to people about a sequence of more than two, then people will wonder why you insist on misusing them that way. –  Mitch May 22 '12 at 2:38
2  
If now is t(0), then t(-1) is the previous, or the most recent, not the latter. Latter specifically means the second of two, not the second in a list. –  J.R. May 22 '12 at 3:10
show 2 more comments

closed as not a real question by Clark Kent, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, Mitch, jwpat7, J.R. May 22 '12 at 3:10

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

1 Answer

As you indicated, "former" and "latter" are understood as referring to 2 items. When you have more than 2 items, it will be less confusing to avoid using "former" and "latter".

If you have 3 or more items, the last one is simply the "last".* Before that are the "next to last" or "penultimate", etc. The first one would be the "first".

*Interesting note: Historically, "last" was the superlative of "latter" which in turn was the comparative of "late". This is similarly true for "former" and "foremost". Of course today they have taken on frozen meanings are aren't really seen as comparative degrees any more.

share|improve this answer
3  
In case others don't know (as I didn't; I looked them up when I saw the etc. above), the one before the penultimate is the antepenultimate, and the one before that the preantepenultimate. These are somewhat rare terms, though, coming from the study of phonetics, but I figured it's worth noting that they exist if you really need a single word. –  Cameron May 22 '12 at 2:26
add comment

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.