According to Cambridge, tall is used to talk about people's height. It can also be used to talk about things that are high and tall in their shape, such as trees and buildings. However, google shows both high and tall are used in the following questions:

How high/tall is the Empire State Building?

How high/tall is the Eiffel Tower?

Are high and tall equally good in both sentences above? And can I use either one in:

How high/tall is the Great Pyramid of Giza?

Edit:

I have read with great pleasure all the valuable answers and comments. I just wanted to say I wasn't looking for a lengthy comparison of the two terms in every possible scenario. I would never say, for example, how tall is the International Space Station? when I mean to ask about the vertical distance from ISS to the Earth's surface. I would instead ask How high is the ISS?, or even better, How far is the ISS from Earth?. What I wanted to ask about is whether high can be used for structures lying at the surface of the Earth and extending high up for some distance, as represented by the title question, to mean the same as tall. Of all the answers given, Lambie's one has addressed this head-on. Now that I'm not a native speaker, and with all the disagreements in the comments and answers, I can't tell if @Lambie is right. But I'd especially like to thank him (or her, I really can't tell from the name) for addressing the central point of my question, regardless of whether or not he/she is right.

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    Possible duplicate of Differences between "long", "tall", and "high" – Hellion Oct 22 at 12:04
  • @Sara You'll do fine if you follow Lambie's advice. Just keep in mind that, even though "tall" and "high" are often used interchangeably, they do have different definitions, which may lead to one being viewed as "more correct" than the other in a given context. I think that's what the answers that emphasize the distinction between the two words are trying to point out. – DoctorDestructo Oct 22 at 21:13
  • @DoctorDestructo, It's not like I have anything against a lengthy discussion. Quite the opposite, I appreciate every effort to fully clarify things up. I just edited my question basically to point out that it's different from the other interlinked ELL question, and so mine shouldn't be voted closed on the grounds of being a duplicate. – Sara Oct 22 at 22:06
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    @Sara I think this question is a little more like yours. And you may be a little more satisfied with its answers than the ones you're getting below. – DoctorDestructo Oct 22 at 23:06

The words "high" and "tall" can have two distinct meanings in this case. The distance between a building's uppermost and bottommost points would be how tall it is. thus, if a building extends 100 meters from its base to its tip, it would be "100 meters tall". If someone would ask how tall it is the answer would be "100 meters".

The altitude a building is situated in would be how high it is. Thus, if a building extends 100 meters from base to tip and is on top of a mountain that extends 100 meters from base to tip, the mountain and the building are both "100 meters tall", but the top of the mountain is "100 meters high" while the top of the building is "200 meters high".

Thus, "how high is it?" and "how tall is it?" can be two different questions with two different answers.

For example, Mount Everest is the highest mountain (and highest point) in the world; however, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world because it extends much more underwater.

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    No, "How tall is that building?" and "How high is that building?" are exactly the same thing. The distance between a building's uppermost and bottommost points are its height. And one can ask the question either way. The same goes for mountains. Finally, building don't have altitudes: they have a measurable height. – Lambie Oct 21 at 22:25
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    English has many words with overlapping meanings. Everything on the planet has an altitude. Buildings have a height, yes, so you can ask what a building's height is. The Empire State Building is at an elevation/base altitude of 16m/52ft. – jaxad0127 Oct 21 at 22:30
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    @Lambie : If we are talking about a monastery on a mountaintop and someone asks how tall it is, it's obvious. If they ask how high it is, I'm tempted to think about how high of a mountain must I climb to reach it. – vsz Oct 22 at 4:17
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    @lambie, I disagree. Tall and high can have completely different meanings. If you were standing at the base of a mountain looking up at a house that was built near the top and you asked "How high is that house?" I would wager a lot of money that the vast majority of people would respond differently than if you asked "How tall is that house?" – Kevin Oct 22 at 12:30
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    Not a response to the original question which is specifically about buildings. Also, I don't agree with the claim that "high" is exclusively used to refer to "altitude". – Baracus Oct 22 at 13:02

Native speakers do say "tall buildings" and it is not unidiomatic to ask how tall a building is.

  • That's right. And one never says;How high is he? – Lambie Oct 21 at 18:58
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    @Lambie You might not, but plenty of people say exactly that. Of course, they're not talking about height when they say it. – Anthony Grist Oct 21 at 21:41
  • @AnthonyGrist I repeat: that is not the context. Clearly, you are not realizing that my comment was about physical heights, which it funny given the answer is was placed under. – Lambie Oct 21 at 22:18
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    @Lambie: Even using high in the literal rather than psychoactive sense, it seems more natural to use tall for the entire extent, and high to one's position in that extent. E.g. I'd say the Empire State Building is 1250 feet tall, but if I'm on the 50th floor, I'd say I'm about 500 feet high. – jamesqf Oct 22 at 5:07
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    @Lambie AnthonyGrist was making a joke. Relax... – barbecue Oct 22 at 14:58

The key here is the extension.

If the top part and bottom part are continuously connected, then we would say tall, generally.

If the top part and bottom part are not connected, then we would say high.

Simple examples first:

A tree is tall, because the tree extends as an object from the ground to the top of the tree.

A bird flies high because there is a space between the bird and the ground.

This is the same as when we say long and far. A snake is long because the snake extends from one end to another, but a star is far because there is a space between us and the star.

Slightly more complicated examples:

Although a tree is tall, the leaf at the very top of the tree is high. This is because we are treating the leaf as a separate object, and so there is space between the leaf and the ground.

For the same reason, we say that treetops are high, mountain tops are high and the rooves of buildings are high even though trees are tall, mountains are tall and buildings are tall.

To help clarify, the difference here is between something being 'on' the ground and something being 'above' the ground.

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    A building is tall or high. A person's height can be said to be tall. The leaf is not high.The leaf is high up on the tree branch. – Lambie Oct 21 at 22:30
  • I'm pretty sure that mountains are usually high, not tall. – Ilmari Karonen Oct 21 at 23:26
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    I'm worried that that search is corrupted by phrases like "high-mountain ecosystem," which means an ecosystem that is high up on a mountain. As a native speaker, I would never say "That mountain is high," referring to the lateral extent of the mountain. I might say "The path of the aircraft was obstructed by some high mountains," because in that case I would be talking about the elevation of the mountaintops. – ajd Oct 22 at 1:12
  • Yes, Alexander Dunlap, exactly. – Karl Oct 22 at 3:31
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    Upon review, it certainly seems from the ngramm that high is more common than tall. But as I said in my initial answer, this is one of the more complicated parts of the usage. When people talk about mountains, they are mostly thinking about the tops of the mountains, how they block out the sky. I know this might seem like a self-serving comment, but the truth is that there are cognitive reasons for why we use language the way we do; it's not usually arbitrary. In this case, the way we think of mountains seems to lead the language. So yes, high is common and correct, but tall is also correct. – Karl Oct 22 at 3:41

Strictly, buildings are high, people are tall.

But in common speech, buildings may be tall or high. However a person may only be tall, if we're talking about the distance between the floor and the top of his head.

'How high is John?' asks his height in the sense of elevation - 'how far up the hill is he?' Or even 'how much marijuana has he smoked! This MIGHT be the meaning of 'how high is the Empire State Building?' but it almost certainly isn't. (On either count.)

We may personalise an object, but not de-personalise a person.

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    I'm not the downvoter, but I'd say this does not work in US English. In my experience, "How high is John?" would almost certainly be asking about John's state of intoxication, and "How high is the Empire State Building" would almost certainly be asking about elevation. – 1006a Oct 21 at 18:33
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    I'm not a native speaker of English, but sentences such as How high up is he? come to mind as the more usual and unambiguous alternatives. The salient interpretation of How high is <person>? is the one mentioned by user 1006a, but I disagree that's also the only one, especially in the right context. – userr2684291 Oct 21 at 19:52
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    @1006a: Perhaps you need to spend more time associating with hikers, rock climbers, back-country skiiers &c, to whom asking "How high is John?" seldom refers to mental state :-) – jamesqf Oct 22 at 5:14

I mostly agree with Karl's answer, but I think it's slightly more subtle. Some objects can be referred to as both "tall" and as "high," but the meanings, or at least the connotations, are a bit different.

"Tall" is about vertical extent.

"The Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York"

connotes that you are interested in the height of the building as a property of the building itself -- perhaps you care about how difficult it is to build such a tall building.

"High" is about elevation.

"The Empire State Building is the highest building in New York"

is talking about the elevation of the building, and in this case it is understood that we are discussing the elevation of the top of the building. So if you said "The Empire State Building is the highest building in New York," you would definitely not be interested in the architecture of tall buildings -- rather, you might be flying a helicopter and want to know at what elevation you could fly without hitting the Empire State Building. But in the latter case you could also say that the Empire State Building is the tallest building, since that implies that high elevation of the top.

Mountains have a similar story -- "tall" emphasizes the vertical extent of the mountain while "high" emphasizes the elevation, usually of the top. Here there are overlapping uses -- for example, if you are climbing a mountain it is impressive both that you scaled such a high vertical extent and also that you were at such a high elevation, so you hear people talk about climbing tall mountains and climbing high mountains. But if you were just looking at a mountain and marveling at its size, you would never say *"that's a high mountain" -- only "that's a tall mountain."

  • I think this is the same as my answer, rather than something more subtle. Still, I'm happy to have you second my answer, and you have definitely added some extra details. Either way, I certainly agree with your answer, since it agrees with mine, so have one vote! – Karl Oct 23 at 11:12
  • Fair enough. To me the distinction is that the same object can be described as both tall and high, depending on what the speaker wants to emphasize about it. I have also upvoted your answer. :) – ajd Oct 23 at 15:46

This is actually a somewhat complicated matter, and answers will usually vary based on what particular dialect of English is being used.

The standard 'rule' (rule in quotes, because it is English after all) I learned while growing up in the American midwest is as follows:

If you're describing a place, use 'high', otherwise use 'tall'.

Put in slightly more formal terms, 'high' is usually used to qualify an object's location (and is thus normally conditional on the object's location), while 'tall' is usually used to describe an implicit property of the object itself (and is thus generally dependent solely on the object itself).

A couple of examples that demonstrate this rule:

  • An airplane flies high [in the sky]. This is probably one of the easiest examples to make, although it is of course conditional on what you consider to be 'high' (most people do of course consider things thousands of kilometers up in the sky to be 'high').
  • Sultan Kősen is tall. It doesn't matter where he is, he's still going to be one of the tallest people around (and will almost certainly be the tallest around). He is not however necessarily high (at least, for the definition of 'high' being discussed here, I can't comment on his mental state) independent of where he is located. The top of his head is high when he's standing up, but not necessarily when when he is laying down.
  • Mount Everest is tall, but it's peak is high. It doesn't matter that Mount Everest is located in the Himalaya mountain range on the border between Tibet and Nepal, it would be just as tall even if it were located on the bottom of the ocean. The peak of Mount Everest, however, describes a particular location that would obviously not be as 'high' (in terms of altitude) if it were located elsewhere.
  • The Empire State Building is tall, but not really all that high (it's located about 180 meters above sea level, which is actually a pretty low altitude). In comparison, the top floor of the Empire State Building is very high by the definitions of most people except pilots and mountain climbers.

The primary issue with this, and the most likely source of your confusion, is the fact that for specific named buildings, the name of the building is often used to mean either the building itself, or the place where it is located. As a result, it doesn't violate this rule to ask how high a building is, it just results in a potential ambiguity. A bit more concretely demonstrated:

  • 'How tall is the Empire State Building?': Is unambiguous, the person is asking about the distance from the ground-level of the Empire State Building to the 'top' of the Empire State Building (there is a minor ambiguity here in that different people may define 'top' differently in this context).
  • 'How high is the Empire State Building above sea level?' Is mostly unambiguous, the speaker is asking what the vertical distance from sea-level to ground-level at the location of the Empire State building is. The potential ambiguity here is whether they mean the location of the building or the building itself, but most people will agree that it's largely nonsensical to ask about the building itself under most circumstances, and therefore they are asking about the location.
  • 'How high is the Empire State Building?' Is potentially ambiguous, depending on context. The speaker may be asking either of the first two questions, but without further context there is no way to resolve this ambiguity, so you generally should not ask this question by itself.
  • 'How high is the top floor of the Empire State Building' Is largely unambiguous, and while not exactly the same as the first question, generally has a roughly equivalent meaning.
  • The question was about a building. Therefore, it is not complicated at all. Either tall or high can be used. And as am AmE speaker, "How high is the building" without further context has never meant: how high above sea level is the building. And top floors,etc. is also not part of the question. – Lambie Oct 23 at 16:09
  • The problem with 'How high is the building?' is that it's ambiguous if you are not thinking in a purely English speaking context. A direct translation of that into a number of other languages will not result in the same thing as 'How tall is the building?', especially if you do it word-by-word as is pretty typical for people learning a language. Even without the multilingual aspect, it's ambiguous without further context for the exact reason I outlined above, you don't know if they are asking about the location of the building or the building itself. – Austin Hemmelgarn Oct 23 at 18:13
  • First of all, direct translation is meaningless. One translates meaning and in English: How high is the Empire State Building? or How tall is the ESB? mean exactly the same thing. If a translator gets it wrong, it means they do not know English well. How do I know? Because I am a native English speaker who translates three languages into English and who interprets those three same languages into and out of English. And I spend my days on this kind of stuff. It's my bread and butter to know there are two ways to talk about building height in English. – Lambie Oct 23 at 18:23

This answer is only about the adjectives tall or high pre-positioned to the noun building or people. It is not about use or tall or high anywhere else in a sentence. Also, it concerns the concept of height. This answer is not about elevation (the distance of a physical thing in relation to the Earth's surface or about the altitude an aircraft or person is at.)

For persons: persons have height (1 meter 80), for example.

  • He is 6 ft. tall. He is 1 meter 80 [ct.] tall. How tall is he?

For things: things have height (20 meters high).

For things, we say: - How high is the house? Colloquially, some people might say "How tall is the house?" It is not formal. Though one does have: the world's tallest buildings. Therefore, one can say: How tall is the building.

That said, you would not say for a person: How high is he? when talking of a person's height.

Engineers and architects talk about the height of a building or built structure. Also, building codes use height and high.

Tourist lingo would tend to say things like "the world's tallest building." for the adjective we say: that is a tall building.

Questions: "How tall is that building?" is the same thing as "How high is that building?" They mean exactly the same thing.

Answer to the question:

How high/tall is the Empire State Building? How high/tall is the Eiffel Tower? How high/tall is the Great Pyramid of Giza?

All those are fine. 100% accurate. Either high or tall may be used and mean the same thing in English for those built structures.

Proof of the pudding: from a university source and two sources for the Empire State Building

1) SKYSCRAPERS: HOW TALL IS TOO TALL? As buildings get taller as quickly as technology advances, we asked an expert – how high is too high?

By Louisa Deasey, University of Melbourne high and tall

2) How high is the Empire State Building?

how high ishttps://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/prod-clp-files/public/documents/3150/original/Language_Arts_507.pdf

3) How tall is the Empire State Building?

how tall is the Empire State Buidling

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    Are you sure about that? I would typically only ask "how high is the house" (or other building) if I was wondering about its elevation (as in, how far above sea level it is built). You could ask "How high is the top of the Eiffel tower" or "how high is the highest point of the Sears Tower", but just asking how high they are, full stop, sounds weird to me. – 1006a Oct 21 at 18:30
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    Are you sure that asking "how tall is the building?" is colloquial and informal? If you have evidence to back up your assertions, I would be interested to see it. Perhaps it's a matter of dialect? As a native speaker of American English, I would have said that "how tall" is the usual way of asking the question. – 1006a Oct 21 at 19:28
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    @1006a See this: How high is the Eiffel Tower?. "high – used about people, trees, plants, and buildings. Tall is used especially about things that are high and narrow". I think How tall is the house? sounds kinda incongruous already because conceptually houses aren't the first thing you think of as tall, whereas high is more neutral and therefore always appropriate. (I'm not a native speaker of English, though.) – userr2684291 Oct 21 at 20:05
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    While in general I agree with Lambie that the two terms are interchangeable, there are some cases where words can gain connotations based on context or frame of reference. It's OK for words to have more than one meaning. – barbecue Oct 22 at 15:04
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    @Lambie Would you acknowledge that, in some very specific contexts (such as a conversation about the elevation at which buildings are built), the question "how high is that building?" could reasonably be interpreted as an inquiry about the building's vertical position, and may therefore be a less appropriate way of asking about its height in that context than "how tall is that building?", which can only refer to the building's vertical dimension. I think you're on the right track, but you're triggering people's pedantry by speaking in absolutes. – DoctorDestructo Oct 23 at 20:03

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