Beyond the Rhetoric


Grammar 101: Ex- and Former

July 19th, 2011 by
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Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

There are some instances where grammar issues are really a non-issue. They just become a matter of word choice and personal preference. Some words might carry certain connotations, but they aren’t at all “incorrect” to use. So, what is the difference between using “ex” and “former” when talking about a person’s former position.

For instance, Jon Rubenstein was the CEO of Palm before it was acquired by HP. Would it be accurate to call him the former CEO of Palm or should you call him the ex-CEO of Palm? Strictly speaking, both terms would have exactly the same meaning: he once held this position, but he no longer holds this position.

That said, English can be a very confusing language and word choice very much comes into play. If Mary and Henry got divorced, Mary would refer to Henry as her ex-husband. It just sounds odd to say that he is her former husband. Similarly, some may say it’s odd to refer to Bill Clinton as the ex-President of the United States; it’s generally more accepted to say that he is the former President. Both have the same meaning, but one is preferred over the other.

One very important difference to note between ex- and former, though, is that ex- is a prefix while former is a complete word on its own. In this way, ex- has to be connected to the former position with a hyphen. Examples include ex-wife and ex-employee. Colloquially, an “ex” (as its own word) could refer to a former partner, as would be the case with an ex-girlfriend or ex-husband. Former would still go in front of the former position, but it is not connected with a hyphen. He is the former boss of Palm. She is a former Marine.

And then there are all sorts of instances where conventional word choice would lead you one way or the other. If you once lived somewhere, it might be acceptable to call that dwelling your former home, but it doesn’t sound right to call it your ex-home. In like manner, if you once worked somewhere, you could say that they were your former employer (as in, “I was formerly employed at XYZ Company”). Saying that XYZ Company is your ex-employer doesn’t sound right either.

Yes, English can be very confusing. The difference between a job and a career can a simple matter of semantics, but some word choices have no real rhyme or reason behind them. You just learn by reading and listening to native English speakers.

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13 Responses to “Grammar 101: Ex- and Former”

  1. betshopboy says:

    In para 4 last sentence, I’m not quite sure ‘former Marine’ sounds right. I’ve watched many Hollywood war movies, and I’ve always heard ‘ex-Marines’, and never ‘former Marine(s)’.

    In using ‘ex-‘ or ‘former’, especially in a conversation, there may be a chance for the parties invovled to confuse ‘former’ from ‘formal’, e.g. ‘former employer’ vs ‘formal employer’.

    • Michael Kwan says:

      Some people will argue that there is a difference in connotation for the Marines (or another military personnel). I don’t think either is technically incorrect, though.

    • k k says:

      What is the difference between “ex” and “former”?

      (C.K. Prem Kumar, Coimbatore)

      Most dictionaries don’t make a distinction between the two words. “Ex” is defined as “former” and “former” is defined as “ex”! So what is the difference between an “ex-Prime Minister” and a “former Prime Minister”? Some scholars argue that the word “ex” should be used with the immediate past incumbent. According to these individuals, there can be only one ex-Prime Minister of India. Who was the Prime Minister of India before Mr. Vajpayee? It was Mr. Gujral. So, he is the ex-Prime Minister of India. And all the others who preceded him — Mr. Nehru, Smt. Indira Gandhi, and Mr. Rajeev Gandhi — are the “former” Prime Ministers. A man may have several former wives, but only one ex-wife.

    • Ellen Siefert says:

      “Once a Marine, always a Marine”. So former is correct!

  2. AOA says:

    Yes, I think it’s fundamentally an issue of how speakers and writers use of a language use pairs of words that technically have the same meaning. Maybe it’s just collocation.

    Also, I think synonyms or near-synonyms derive their meanings, which cannot possibly be mistaken , from other words they are related with in actual use.

    By the way, what does “break out your lighters” mean in the following sentences?

    1. We have a blast, love what we do and whether it’s a bar, club, cookout, birthday, reunion, or wedding, we’re always ready to rock out and ready for you to sing along & break out your lighters!

    2. Break out your lighters, the IBM Service Management World Tour is coming!

    Does it mean bring out your glow sticks and wave them in support of your rock bands?

    Thanks very much!

    • Michael Kwan says:

      At rock concerts, it’s common for the fans to take out their lighters (and in more modern context, their cell phones if they don’t smoke) and wave them from side to side in time with the music. It makes for a fun effect and it’s another way of showing the artists that you’re having a good time.

  3. Ray Ebersole says:

    I think Ex is more personal, while former is less intimate. Example, a wife or husband are intimate or close physically so they would be Ex. An employer is does not have that closeness type of relationship so they would be former.

    As for the Ex-Marine, I believe that a job that, or a Fireman, etc. are very personal, intimate jobs that don’t relate like a regular job and Ex applies better.

  4. Ex and Former means almost the same but it is taken by the listeners in a different way.When we say ex-husband it’s like we are taking it so personally ,and when we say professionally former husband is used.English language is really very very confusing.

  5. busto says:

    Can i say a former student or ex student?

    • Michael Kwan says:

      For me, I think it depends on context, but either is technically correct.

      I’d say “the former student of Professor Smith,” but “the ex-UBC student.” Although not necessarily true, the “ex” in this context almost has a connotation that the student was expelled from the school, whereas “former” sounds more neutral.

    • brian barrett says:

      Busto – please note that ex is a prefix and should be attached with a hyphen to the word. So it is either a former student or an ex-student.
      Personally I also find ‘former’ more neutral than ex-. The latter appears to be stressing that you are no longer a student, in this example, whereas former is stressing that you were once a student.
      So the comment, ‘An ex-student said the teacher was not very good’, is possibly stating that there are no longer a student and therefore what do they know or matters may now have changed.
      The comment, ‘A former student said …’, may indicate the user is stressing that the student must know something about the teacher because he/she was once a student.
      I must state, though, that this distinction appears to be only very slight and only a ‘feeling’ that I have.

  6. […] refers to something that happened in the past. This is inherently related to the word former, which would also denote something that happened previously. We could say, for example, that Hong […]

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