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What is the difference between "Older" and "Elder" ?

And are they interchangeable ?

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The use of elder is restricted to compare human beings, mostly in family relationships. The one who is elder is the one who was born first.

This is my elder sister Betty.

You cannot substitute elder for older at all times.

  • Elder can only be used for people, when used for things, it is meant as a special figure of speech involving personification, so to be used with extreme care.

  • You cannot use elder with "than" (even if it is implied, as in sentence b) ):

    a) This is my sister Betty, she's older than me. (and not elder)
    b) This is my sister Betty, she's older. (and not elder)

But:

  • This is my sister Betty she's the elder of us two.

We do not use elder after get or grow:

  • You'll understand when you get/grow older.

The restrictions in the use of the superlative eldest are the same. It is not used for things.

  • The eldest/oldest of my six children has already left school.
  • My eldest/oldest son is in the fifth grade.

But:

He's the oldest in the school.

Elder and eldest are considered formal and some people do not use them at all.

  • "which is both a noun and a verb for describing old people": Did you mean a noun and a pronoun? – Giorgio Oct 3 '14 at 7:22
  • @Giorgio I think he means "a noun and an adjective": his first example uses the word as an adjective and his second as a noun. A pronoun is a word like "he" or "we". – David Richerby Oct 3 '14 at 8:55
  • @DavidRicherby: You are right. In the second example it is an adjective that is used as a noun. In any case, definitely not a verb. – Giorgio Oct 3 '14 at 9:10
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    "Elder" is also the root of "elderly", which is both a noun and an adjective for describing old people. (Both "What are we going to do about youths and elderly people?" and "The elderly like chatting with young people about the good old days." are correct.) But "olderly" is not a word, as far as I know. Also, "elderly" is not an adverb, as far as I know. (I thank Giorgio and David Richerby for helping me correct "verb" to "adjective" in this comment.) – Jasper Oct 3 '14 at 10:35
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    @R.. In Elder wand "elder" is not an adjective but a noun, and it does not refer to age, and has nothing to do with comparing ages, but it refers to the type of wood the wand is made of. And on wikipedia. – Laure Oct 3 '14 at 18:33
6

I generally agree with most of the quirky rules in the other answers. However, I'd like to add: in American English, the adjective elder seems practically antiquated. Eldest is still common, e.g. as in "the eldest son". Even the noun elder, i.e. when referring to the older people in a person's life ("their elders"), is common. The adjective elder, however, is generally left out of normal speech and writing in favor of the almost perfectly-synonymous older. I only ever see or hear elder used as an adjective in fantasy where the word's nature as a nearly-forgotten lingual relic makes it seem almost foreign and exotic, lending to a setting's mystery and age.

  • Fantasy: "The Elder Scrolls" comes to mind. It's rare to encounter it outside of Fantasy these days, with the term "the elderly" as exception. And even that is mainly only seen in the news or used by politicians, when discussing healthcare or pensions. – Tonny Oct 3 '14 at 15:26
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Elder can be used to indicate someone or something of higher rank or greater influence. The elder member of a group may not always be the oldest member of that group.

Older and elder both imply having greater age than something or someone else.

  • 1
    Elder is rarely used to describe a place or thing. – AwsomeMoss Oct 2 '14 at 18:24
2

As stated in the other answers, "elder" means "older" but is usually only used when comparing a group of people who are in some way related. It also comes up in some idioms such as "elder statesman".

There is one slight subtlety: consider the siblings John (15), James (17) and Mary (19). Mary might talk about "my elder brother, James" to mean "My brother James (by the way, I also have another brother who's younger than him)", whereas James might talk about "My older sister", meaning "My sister Mary who is older than me."

1

Used as an adjective, "elder" is used when comparing the age of two people. The person who was born first is elder. It's used often for siblings, as in, "I have two sons. Charlie is the elder. John is the younger." While this is correct, in every day speech, most people use "older" instead of "elder". "My older son, Charlie, is coming to visit today."

Older can be used to describe things as well as people. "My house is older than yours." Elder cannot be used in this way.

  • Is that use of an -er superlative (Charlie is the elder) regional? I have to admit I have never heard it. If it is regional, US or whatever, it might be appropriate to say so because it could be rejected as non standard English in an exam. – Laure Oct 2 '14 at 16:26
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    In the example above, I used it as the comparative form between two sons, not the superlative. That said, perhaps I could have formed a better sentence so it was more clear! – michelle Oct 2 '14 at 16:58
  • I would have said Charlie is the elder of the two. Without "of the two" it sounds like a superlative to me. – Laure Oct 2 '14 at 17:38
  • Fair enough. Using a truncated sentence was probably not the best choice on my part. – michelle Oct 2 '14 at 17:41
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    @Laure: eldest is the superlative. We have three kids. Charlie's the eldest. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 2 '14 at 17:51
0

They are almost completely interchangeable.They are basically synonyms. However, 'elder' sounds more formal than 'older'.

The comparative and superlative forms of old are older and oldest.

E.g.:

My sister is older than me.

That's the oldest castle in the city.

I agree with @Michelle, elder generally should not be used to describe things.

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    "The Elder Scrolls" would be grammatically wrong, then? – Adriano Varoli Piazza Oct 2 '14 at 18:24
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    @AdrianoVaroliPiazza In "The Elder Scrolls," we use "elder" in the much less common meaing of "of or relating to earlier times" (rather than "of greater age"). It means something like "The Ancient Scrolls", rather than "The Scrolls that are Older Than Some Other Scrolls". This use of "elder" is very rare; I don't think I've ever seen it outside of that video game title and H.P. Lovecraft's mythic "elder gods". – apsillers Oct 2 '14 at 20:09
  • @apsillers Hey, gods are people too. – talrnu Oct 2 '14 at 20:35
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    ...elderberries... I'll show myself out. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Oct 2 '14 at 20:58
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    @snailboat No relationship between the noun "elder" name of a tree (from Old English ellæn, ellærn), and elder comparative degree of old (see German älter, from alt). They're just homonyms. Too long to expand on ELL, but I think you have access to the OED to read about their respective etymologies. Whereas in elder scrolls, elder tales, etc. although I'm not acquainted with the video game, I think "elder" is noun/adjective derived from "old". – Laure Oct 4 '14 at 10:06
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"older" is the normal comparative, the use of the variant "elder" is limited to a few cases. Oald has it very clearly: http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/elder_1?q=elder

-1

After reading everyone's input with great interest and much gratitude, it seems to me that the word "older" is meant to signify that something or someone is more old, whereas the word "elder" does not actually refer to age, but more to experience or understanding.

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