ENGLISCH/906: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (188) "older or elder" (SB)


Older, elder, eldest

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...Are the words "older" and "elder" synonyms? Do they both mean the same or are there any differences? I'll be glad if you could give me some advice.


Maria P (Nuremberg, Germany)


Dear Ms P I suppose you could say that the meaning of both words is the same, but we use them in a slightly different way. First "older", we can say for example:

"Fred is older than Elizabeth."

But if Fred and Elizabeth are brother and sister we can say:

"Fred is Elizabeth's elder brother."

In other words we use "elder" to describe family relationships. We can also say:

"My elder son Richard is studying at Cambridge."

We say that, if there are two sons and the elder son, the one who is older than the other, is at Cambridge. Notice that we say:

"The one who is older ..."

So, immediately after the verb "to be" we say "older". Also, earlier we have been talking about the same son Richard and said "elder" with the word son, "my elder son".

If there are more than two sons we say not elder but "eldest". For example:

"My eldest son is called William. William is the eldest."

Notice, that we can say: William is "the eldest". So, after the verb to be we can say "the eldest" or "the elder". By the way, we can also say:

"My elder son Richard is older than your eldest son William."

It's a good thing that there are no such problems with the word "young". We say:

"My youngest son is younger than your younger son."

Hoping that this sorts things out and thanking you for writing ...


Miranda Gobbledygook

19 December 2011