PREMISE: I am not asking about the difference in meaning or usage between latter and later; it is, therefore, not a duplicate of the older question: what is the difference between later and latter?

Instead, I would like to understand more about its history and why it is rarely used as the comparative adjective of late, and, finally, if the superlative “the most latter” ever existed.

According to Wiktionary, latter is not comparable.

Latter

Adjective
latter (not comparable)

Relating to or being the second of two items.
Near (or nearer) to the end.
Close (or closer) to the present time.

In fact, “more latter” or “lattermore” are nonexistent as is “most latter” but “lattermost” is cited in all the major dictionaries, English Oxford Dictionaries defines it as: Nearest to the end, final, last although it fails to mention that it is a superlative.

I admit to feeling confused, and I would argue that the following examples are using latter as a comparative adjective.

  • I prefer his latter book than his first (I prefer his second book)

  • There are more ways of achieving the latter [fame] than the former [great wealth].

It also seems clear that latter is an ungradable adjective; it cannot be modified by using very, really, quite or less in front nor by using words such as absolutely or completely and I have never seen the superlative form, “the most latter”.

Additionally, I cannot come up with a single example where the word latter is used in a sentence without the definite article or a determiner.

From Oxford Dictionaries

‘the latter half of 1989’
‘heart disease dogged his latter years’
‘… in the latter stages of the game.’
‘…in the latter part of the week than at the beginning of the week.’
‘The latter half of my previous letter,…’

I later checked on Google Ngrams and "the latter" is by far the most common pairing

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Last but not least, I found the following chart that says latter is the comparative adjective, until very recently I had never seen nor heard that the adjective late was irregular.

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Different charts which include latter can be seen on this site (23/28 image) and here. I'm tempted to say that the charts are mistaken, but are they?

  • Is (or was) late an irregular adjective?
  • Is latter non-comparable as Wiktionary claims it to be?
  • Why is latter nearly always preceded by the definite article, is this semantically or grammatically significant?
  • Latter is an older term than later, which is probably a later formation or a variant of latter: “Old English lætra "slower," comparative of læt "late" (see late (adj.)). Meaning "belonging to a subsequent period" is from c. 1200. Sense of "that has been mentioned second of two or last" is first recorded 1550s. – user240918 Apr 27 at 19:31
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    You could argue that late has both a regular and an irregular declension: late/later/latest and late/latter/last. Historically, you’d be correct. Synchronically… arguably correct. You could also argue that latter and last are both indeclinable adjectives that are historically and semantically linked to late, but not actual inflections of it. I don’t think there is really any way of saying decisively that one approach is correct and the other incorrect. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 29 at 9:40
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    There are more ways of achieving the latter [fame] than the former [great wealth]. Reconsider this sentence. Here both the latter and the former are nouns, aren't they? – mahmud koya Apr 29 at 16:20
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    “Latter" isn't comparable in the same - and vital - way "elder" isn't but “older” is… – Robbie Goodwin Apr 29 at 22:31
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    a latter: google.com/… – Neil W May 2 at 9:28

"The "obvious" answer

I'm going to attempt a rare answer with no research.

I don't like the phrase non-comparable and would argue that it's a poor term for what is meant to describe the distinction of latter.

I prefer his latter book over his first

If this means a preference for the second book, it only works if there are only two books. It does not seem correct or clear to say:

Out of his first, second, and third books, I prefer the latter.

Maybe "latter" in its purest form is a binary term, functioning as the opposite of "former." Neither implies an immediate relationship as with preceding or following.

Perhaps over time it evolved to mean, simply, "later," and led to words like "lattermost," as a recent development, in meaning and character...

So what if I had done research?

It turns out, according the OED, that the opposite is true. Latter in its earliest uses in English simply meant "later than," or, even better, often "slower," or even just "worse" or "less than [in any sense]." Hardly a "non-comparable" term, in that it seemed to imply only that anything would be better, faster, or sooner in comparison.

In fact, the distinction between "latter" and "later" seems to have happened a little latter than I thought.

All examples of later earlier than 1500 have been regarded as showing latter adj., adv., and n., although it is conceivable that some (especially in senses A. 2a or B. 1) may rather belong as antedatings at later adv., adj., and int.)

Only first in c1225, long before the OED has, in the aforementioned quote, determined a distinction between antedatings of "later" and "latter," do we find a citation that fits the assumptions I laid out at the top of my answer.

That has been mentioned second of two, last of a group of more than two, or at or near the end of a preceding clause or sentence. Frequently opposed to former

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    For the record, the quip about being "obvious" is a joke aimed at those who close questions for being too "obvious." I'm not truly making any statement about this question -- I like it. – RaceYouAnytime May 1 at 5:01
  • Agree that latter doesn't sound right for three or more things (e.g. books) ... it's predominately a binary thing (e.g. "the latter half of 1989"). – TripeHound May 1 at 9:56
  • @TripeHound - Not sure I agree with you there. There are two usages of latter: binary as you say (former vs latter), and as a synonym for "later". I wouldn't say "the former half of 1989", so it's not the first. But then I wouldn't say "the latter third of 1989" either... but I would say "the latter months of 1989" meaning the last 3-4 months. I'm not really sure what my conclusion is... other than that the OP has asked a good question and I can't answer it! – AndyT May 2 at 9:02
  • @AndyT Personally, I'd say "the latter months of 1989" to mean that last 3-4 months is wrong (it should be "later"), although this is probably drifting into a debate over how part of a language should be used, and how it sometimes is used, and – in a "living language" – whether and how much can "common use" alter "correct use". – TripeHound May 2 at 9:14
  • Am I to consider late to be an irregular adjective? Why/why not? Could you please provide a little more detail when the OED says that latter meant "slower" or "worse"? Maybe I should point out I don't have a subscription to the OED. It seems that "latter" is a spelling variant of "later", or have I misunderstood that part? – Mari-Lou A May 6 at 6:42

Latter usually has the distinction of being last on a list; "Dick, Jane and Spot played outside, the latter being Jane's pet dog." However, the idiom currently used with it is, latter-day: modern or contemporary, especially when mirroring some person or thing of the past. Curiously, I could have written that lead in as; "However, the popular latter-day usage is in the idiom, latter-day." and been correct.

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    I'm in agreement with RaceYouAnytime and TripeHound that a list of three doesn't use "latter". I'm also pretty sure that I only see "latter-day" when talking about the Church of the Latter-day Saints. – AndyT May 2 at 9:04
  • @AndyT Adj.1. latter-day - belonging to the present or recent times; "the latter-day problems of our society" present - temporal sense; intermediate between past and future; [thefreedictionary.com/latter-day] – Norman Edward May 2 at 15:26
  • I'm aware of the meaning of latter-day. That doesn't change the frequency with which I hear it or read it, or when I do the context in which it is used. – AndyT May 2 at 16:16
  • @Andy This question was about the use of late and latter. Not frequency of usage. The reply to my answer is still only your opinion. I made no mention of my own usage of it - the question did not ask about personal usage. – Norman Edward May 2 at 18:48

Job 19:25-27, in the King James Version:

For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another;

This "latter day," and other KJV references to latter days, possibly refer the last days of earth, and are echoed in the formal title of the Mormon church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (established 1830).

And it is latter-day saints that provide most of the instances where latter is used with the indefinite article (a latter), e.g.:

A Latter Day Saint: Being the Story of the Conversion of Ethel Jones (1884) (this one is fiction, although most are memoirs) and the more intriguing Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir (2013).

There are also a number of legal references, such as "a latter law," which seem to be alternative spellings of later. "... a former will may be revoked by a latter one," A Treatise of Equity, 1805. Although the use of the indefinite article is infrequent, it seems to follow the usual conventions.

Former/latter are often used in formal writing to refer to the first-mentioned and second-mentioned of a pair, as in your fame-fortune duo; but if it's reversed to fortune-fame, then there are more ways to achieve the latter than the former.

late-later-last: The boy arrive late; his sister was even later; and the mother was the last of the family to arrive.

But the latest guest to arrive is the most recent to arrive, as in "the latest and greatest" or the latest fashion. late, OLD

An incomplete answer, unquestionably, but too long for a comment.

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