How old are you?

Rude! You should never ask that question!

But, are you the oldest in the room? Or the eldest? What’s the difference?

This is one of those easily confusable words that frequently gets misused in speech and in writing.

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Firstly, a little grammar. We will be talking about comparatives and superlatives. A comparative, as the name suggests, compares two different things whereas a superlative describes the extreme. In this instance, older and elder are comparatives: they are describing the relationship between two different nouns and oldest and eldest are describing the most old thing.

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Generally, the different between older/oldest and elder/eldest is quite simple. When you are talking about a person you use elder/eldest or older/oldest: Her eldest son went to school in the next village. His oldest daughter went there as well. Although, keep it consistent!

When discussing other nouns, objects for instance, you use older/oldest: The oldest of the radios is broken.

The same is true when using the comparative: She is my elder sister and she has the older bed, I got the newer one.

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However, because this is English, we have to go and break that rule!

My mother is older than me. (English and a biology lesson – you lucky people!)

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When the word is not immediately followed by a noun use older.

When the word is immediately preceded by a determiner, use older:

The eldest of the two siblings is right, not the oldest of the squabbling pair.

Yet another but. My elder sister is a firefighter is equally as correct as my older sister is a firefighter.

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This blog post was suggested by a fellow editor, Riffat Yusef. If you have a question you’d like answering, please get in touch and I’d be delighted to try and answer it for you!

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Fiction editor and proofreader.

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