While reading Swan's Practical English Usage, I came across this sentence

I don't do much sport now, but I did play football when I was younger.

Why comparative younger? Simply young could have worked there, couldn't it? Or, does it mean that 'younger' means the speaker just left playing sport last year? As it reflects younger as the phase of life earlier than the present year (of his age).

For instance, if the speaker is 45...

I don't do much sport now, but I did play football when I was younger (than this age) -> Up till 44 he played OVER
I don't do much sport now, but I did play football when I was young -> When he was young, say in 20s-30s or whatever.


5 Answers 5


Young is the time of life before adulthood, synonymous with youth.

When I was young. = When I was a youth. Before my adulthood. This wouldn't make much sense for a 10 year old to say, but they may. Also, someone that is 100 may use young to refer to their twenties, even though that is adulthood.

Younger is comparative with the current age.

When I was younger. = Ages prior to my current age. This obviously depends on context. If you are 100 then younger could be 90, however in the context of playing football that is not as likely.


In this sort of discourse, both young and younger refer to “life stages” rather than mathematical measurements. So younger would not mean “at all earlier ages” but “in an earlier stage of life”. But where you draw the lines between stages is certainly going to depend on your age and your personal history: when did you stop being young?

The main difference between young and younger is that young refers to the earliest stage of life which would be appropriate to the specific activity under discussion, while younger refers to some earlier stage of life which is not so remote that it would be qualified as young.

Thus, if I as a man of 66 said “I did theatre when I was young” I would probably mean starting at around fifteen or sixteen and up until I was twenty-five or thirty; but when I say “I did theatre when I was younger”, I mean up until I was in my late forties, with the starting point left very vague. When I say “I played football when I was young” I mean from about age ten until about age eighteen. And when I say “I have been fond of Gilbert and Sullivan since I was young” I mean since about age five.

But that’s only what I mean; there’s no way you can derive those epochs from what I actually say. If you need more precision than “in the past/in the remote past” you have to ask me.

  • +1 as usual ...Thank you, sir. But I chose this time AbraCadaver, that's short and to-the-point as well. :)
    – Maulik V
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 4:16

"Younger" would be the more common way for a middle aged person to say it. Usually we would say "when I was younger", or "when I was a kid" if it's something that stopped when the speaker was very young, like Little League Baseball. If the speaker is talking about, say, basketball, he might have played in college and beyond. Also, "when I was young" implies that the speaker is old (not young at all anymore). We older folks don't necessarily like to say that.


In this case, a lot will depend on context; I don't think you can draw conclusions as firm as the ones you suggest. It is not the case that "younger" necessarily means very recently.

If the person is very old; for example, in their eighties, they would be more likely to describe something that happened in their sixties as "when I was younger" than "when I was young." But that's not certain. And either phrase could be used to describe something that happened when they were in their twenties.

  • 1
    "Younger" would simply be "some time in the past", not the present. "Young" would imply that it was in their youth (say, before age 25, or even younger, if they're substantially older than that now).
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 17:54

As others have indicated, the use of "when I was young" often indicates a much older person than the more subjective "when I was younger". Without knowing, most native speakers would assume from "when I was young" that you are elderly (60 & up) - someone generally thought to be now physically incapable of the activity being discussed.

Also, on a different note, the phrase "I don't do much sport now" may be in Swan's book, but it makes very little sense to native American English speakers.

As a man from Texas in his 40's, I would say "I don't play sports now, but I did when I was younger." Hope that helps.

  • 1
    I don't do much sport now makes perfect sense to me and sounds comfortably colloquial. You should not equate Texas with the universe of native English speakers. It's not that big.
    – toandfro
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 2:37
  • Sorry, but I have never in my life heard anyone say "I don't do much sport" - not just in Texas, but anywhere else in the country or in any English-speaking movie or TV show. If the purpose of this forum is to help people understand practical English, then you are doing them a disservice by saying that is acceptable to use in conversational American English.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 15:37
  • Who said anything about American English? My very point is that English exists outside Texas/US, and I can assure you that "I don't do much sport" is absolutely normal and colloquial in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and probably elsewhere too. So I bristle at your claim that it makes "very little sense to native English speakers". It is you who are doing this site's readers a disservice by ignoring the world outside Texas.
    – toandfro
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 19:41
  • There's no need to be so prickly about this. The OP specifically mentioned that he read this in Swan's book, and Swan often discusses the differences between British English and American English. Many of the people using this site do business with Americans, and to most Americans the phrase "do much sport" would sound utterly ridiculous.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 19:51
  • I am not being prickly in pointing out that your catch-all use of "native English speakers" is simply wrong. I don't care what's in Swan's book - that isn't relevant to the point. If something sounds odd to an American, then say so. Many of the people using this site come from or do business with other parts of the world, and in that context US speakers of English are a minority. Edit: I see you've edited your answer to add "American". Thank you.
    – toandfro
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 19:59

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