25

Former and latter are valid only when there are two choices.

If I have a list of more than two items, is there an elegant way to say the first one or the last one?

  • Another word in place of latter is final. – MrHen May 10 '11 at 13:48
15

You can say first and last (without one).

Of winter, spring, and summer, I find the last most enjoyable.

13

Interesting question. First and last will do, but suppose you wanted to refer to the middle option, or the fourth option?

Consider for example a scenario where a party of adventurers must choose from a list of options;

  • Go forward into the forest, singing a song of sixpence
  • Go back to base to retrieve some hats
  • Go back to base to dispute the pronunciation of the word "tomato"
  • Stay put, weave baskets, and hope for rescue
  • Stay put, weave baskets, and try to summon a helpful genie

Now if I were in this party considering these options, I might suggest we take the second option, but it is far more likely that I say something like we need our hats, implying that we should take the second option where we also go back to base.

In other words, with more than two options, the most elegant way is to refer to the unique attributes of the option. In fact, with just two options I still think this is more elegant than former and latter since it relieves the reader of the burden of remembering which is which.

11

I don't think there's anything inelegant about first or last. You can always use ultimate, penultimate, and antepenultimate if you want to be certain no one understands you.

  • 7
    On Wiktionary, I've discovered there's also preantepenultimate. Wonderful! I must find an occasion to use it. – TRiG Feb 9 '11 at 19:40
7

'latter' is NOT only valid when there are two items! According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the 2nd meaning of 'latter':

2 : of, relating to, or being the second of two groups or things or the last of several groups or things.

This also puzzled me, a non-native speaker in the beginning.

  • Strictly speaking, this is true. But as the full OED points out, Use of the latter when referring to the last-mentioned member of a group of three or more (rather than the last), or to refer to a single antecedent which is not part of a group, has often been criticized as erroneous by usage writers. In which context they cite Dictionary of Modern. English Usage (Fowler) - The latter should not be used when more than a pair are in question... Neither should it be used when less than two are in question. – FumbleFingers Jul 15 '17 at 14:40
  • 1
    I thought the war between British and American was over more than 200 years ago. Yet I still lost 3 points for that sort of fight. – HongboZhu Jul 24 '17 at 8:15
4

There are other words you can use in place of "first" and "last" - for example, "foremost" and "lattermost" - but whether that is more elegant, or just more pretentious, could be debatable.

1

It has to be 'first' and 'last', as they are simply the superlatives of which 'former' and 'latter' are the comparatives.

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 19:18

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