Using ex and former

Using ex and former

Written by Lilian Ndongmo. ESL Teacher

Question: One of my students asked, “Should I say my ex-boss or my former boss?”

Answer: This is a tricky one for English learners and even native speakers because of the similarity in meaning. However, ex and former are not and cannot be treated in the same way, and hence, should not be used interchangeably. Why?

Both ex and former mean that a person has completed something or a situation / relationship has ended. The difference between the two lies in how it ended or was completed.

“Ex” is used when a situation ends because of negative reasons. Ex-wife/ ex-husband (the marriage ended in divorce because one person cheated, was abusive, etc.) Ex-student / ex-colleague/ ex-boss (the student was expelled from school; the colleague or boss was fired from his job). When you think “ex”, think something negative must have happened to bring an end to the situation.

Note: “Ex-student” does not necessarily imply negative, especially when used in the context of associations. It is quite common to combine a school’s name with “ex-students association” or “ex-students meeting”. This does not mean that all the past students of that school were expelled or left on bad conduct.

“Former” is the good one. Use it when a situation ends not because of negative reasons or circumstances.  If your relationship with your husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend ends, it would be a good idea to use former in the case where you and your partner decided and mutually agreed that both of you were not meant for each other and your split was mutual and on friendly terms. Likewise, your former boss probably wanted a new challenge, found a new job and left the company without incident.

Below are examples of ex and former. Can you distinguish the meaning?

1. Supporters of ex-president Morsi have taken to the streets in protest.

2. Former South African president, Nelson Mandela is well-loved by the South African people.

3. Former students sue ex-Olympic CEO John Furlong for sexual abuse.

4. The purpose of the Ex-Students Association is to maintain contact with all former students of the College…