The Grammarphobia Blog

“Ex” hits the spot

Q: I’m a photography instructor and one of my students corrected me for referring to an “ex-student” instead of a “former student.” I looked at a few websites, but I couldn’t find anything definitive on the issue of “ex” vs. “former.” Is “former” preferred, as my student suggested?

A: I see nothing wrong with using “ex” to mean “former.” The only rule associated with this usage (at least the only one I can find) is that it’s hyphenated. Both “ex” and “former” are proper English, though “former” sounds a bit more formal to my ear.

The adjective “former,” meaning earlier in time, is a very old word, dating back to the 12th century. But the use of the word in reference to an earlier job or position (office holder, wife, student, etc.) appears to be more recent.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for the newer usage (in the political sense) is in a 1905 article in the New York Herald: “Former President Cleveland is among the arrivals of the week at the Lakewood Hotel.”

Interestingly, the earliest citation in the OED for “ex” as an adjective meaning former is much older. Here’s a quote from The Age of Bronze, an 1823 poem by Byron:

Her eyes, her cheek, betray no inward strife,
And the ex-empress grows as ex a wife.

Or, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster in the P.G. Wodehouse novel Barmy in Wonderland (1952), you never saw an ex any ex-er than that.

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