Former and Latter

By Barney Latimer

There are many stylistic sins worse than using former and latter. But if you’ve ever had to stop and reread a sentence or passage to figure out what former and latter point back to, you know why it’s best to avoid them. Making readers pick their way back through the text will surely frustrate them and delay or inhibit their ability to understand your point.

The following is a good example of a passage that relies on former and latter to create a bridge between two sentences:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—the former was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, the latter an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

So what’s a writer to do? One possibility is to repeat the two things that former and latter refer to so the reader no longer has to scan back over the text:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—Comœdia was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, L’ère nouvelle an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

Doing so, however, introduces the clunky repetition that the writer was looking to avoid in the first place.

A solution will often reveal itself when you look beyond the obvious, quick fix. Step back and try looking at the passage as a kind of puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet. By assembling the pieces in different ways, the picture will become either more or less clear. This can be an empowering and even liberating way of thinking about revision.

This approach of reconfiguration means that the writer is not locked in to a choice between the two alternatives above. Let’s dig a little deeper and ask, Does the author even need to refer to each periodical more than once? Can we rework the prose to obviate the need for repetition? When we look again at the passage with these questions in mind, a solution reveals itself:

The announcement of the Congress of Paris in two ideologically different venues—Comœdia, a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, and L’ère nouvelle, an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

This revision allows the names of the periodicals to take the place of former and latter. And, as sometimes happens when you identify one problem and find a creative solution to it, another aspect of the passage improves as well. In the original, “These ideologically different venues” are described as “reveal[ing] the congress’s inclusive goals.” However, it’s not exactly the venues themselves—but, rather, the fact that the congress was announced in two different places—that revealed the congress’s inclusivity.

This kind of happy accident is surprisingly common. When you look beyond the quick fix and approach the passage you are revising as a whole composed of many movable parts, reconfiguring the parts to remove one weakness can yield a structure that is stronger overall.

Published 30 November 2016

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