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 the golden rule is always: 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!

Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.

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Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.

To find out more and to work with Nick, use the buttons above.

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Your Ko-fi donations help keep me blogging about writing and editing. They also ensure that I can create and provide free resources for editors and writers. Please consider buying me a cuppa!

Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Editor and proofreader specialising in LGBTQ+ writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

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