Friday, April 27, 2007

Ex- vs. Former

Should it be an ex-president or a former president? Are the two interchangeable?
Ron/Traverse City, MI

This is one of the many manufactured controversies that bedevil people and make their lives unnecessarily complicated. Both ex- and former are properly used as designations for persons who have previously held the office in question.

H.W. Fowler seems to be the culprit in this case. His A Dictionary of Modern English Usage contains this entry for ex-:

For such patent yet prevalent absurdities as ex-Lord Mayor, ex-Chief Whip, ex-Tory Solicitor-General (except in another sense than its writer means), see HYPHENS; & for alternatives, LATE.

Fowler was often an elegant writer and a dispenser of common sense, but there was a spasm of personal preference in this entry disguised as proper grammar. Even he admits that saying the late Lord Mayor should be avoided “because of the doubt whether it means that the person’s life, or his tenure of office, is over.” In modern America, unless you are fond of using the phrase of late instead of the word recently, late means dead in this context.

I acknowledge that one of Fowler’s points was to avoid ambiguous hyphenated terms, such as ex-Friend of the Library member. The single-minded among us could construe that to mean that this person is now a raving enemy of the library and a flaming book-burner, but the rest of us realize that ex- modifies the entire phrase, not simply the word to which it is attached.

So, many commentators have arrived at this compromise. (1) Use ex- for the immediate past office holder: ex-president Bill Clinton. (2) Use former for all previous holders of the office: former president Jimmy Carter. (3) Use late to indicate a recently deceased holder of the office: late president Gerald Ford.
My advice: relax. There are more serious things to worry about, such as shallow one-minute formats passing as presidential candidate debates. Shame on you, MSNBC.

SIDEBAR: H.W. Fowler, The King’s English

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