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Chimney

  1. The chimney in the picture above is more than 20m high.

  2. The chimney in the picture above is more than 20m tall.

Are both high and tall proper in these sentences?

If not, why not? And when should one prefer high over tall, and vice versa?

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6 Answers 6

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I would have to disagree with @FumbleFingers. This may be a US vs. UK thing (I'm American), but I think that it sounds odd when he describes a mountain as being "high." I would definitely say that a mountain is "tall." If you want to use Google hits as a metric, I found these results: "highest mountain" 412,000 results "tallest mountain" 755,000 results

As a basic rule, I would say if both the top and bottom of something are far from the ground, then it is high (e.g. a branch in a tree is high). If the top is high and the bottom is low, then I would describe it as tall (e.g. the tree itself is tall).

Addendum: after much discussion, the major take-away for an English Language Learner is that nobody is going to question your English proficiency based on your choice of "tall" vs. "high" in this context. We can debate until the cows come home, but either word is perfectly acceptable here.

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    Agreed...mostly. :) Around here, "tall" implies not just how far up the top is, but how far the top is from the bottom. "High" to me means "far from the ground" in most cases, and i'd generally only use it as a synonym for "tall" for short things. (VA, USA)
    – cHao
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 20:03
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    Australian here. Agreed. Continuing @cHao's point, you can say "Tallest mountain", and "Highest point of the mountain". Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 22:10
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    Doesn't the song go "ain't no mountain high enough" ...? Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 22:20
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    Are we using different versions of Google? On Google Internet, I get 921,000 hits for "tallest mountain", and 4,980,000 for "highest mountain". In Google Books it's even more marked, with tallest=28,400; highest=352,000. Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 23:40
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    COCA (US English) says: "highest mountain" 124, "tallest mountain" 65; "high mountain" 142, "tall mountain" 12.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Mar 18, 2013 at 22:39
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Both are acceptable, but I'm sure high would be more common. People tend to use tall in reference to objects of human scale; a 200-foot chimney stack is only marginally within that category. Thus:

Everest is 29,nnn feet high 154 hits in Google Books
Everest is 29,nnn feet tall 34 hits.

Everest is the highest [mountain] 14,700 hits
Everest is the tallest [mountain] 2,050 hits

As Jim correctly comments, you can often interpret high as a reference to the "elevation" of something (i.e. - distance above ground/sea level), whereas tall is usually a reference to the "length" of something in its vertical plane.


Not directly involved here, but worth pointing out, is that because of that connection between tall and the human scale/shape, we also tend to use tall for "rod-shaped" things perpendicularly oriented, and high for things with a more "extended" top surface. Thus:

[The] wall is six feet high 1,260 hits
[The] wall is six feet tall 2 hits

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    Mauna Kea is taller than Everest, but Everest is higher than Mauna Kea.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 6:38
  • @Andrew: Apparently so, if we measure mountain height/tallness as the vertical distance from some nearby ocean floor to the mountain summit. But what a meaningless way to measure elevation! Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 13:25
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They would both be correct here. The main difference is that tall always refers to the height of something (its size), whereas high (while used this way for structures), can be (and often is) used to describe the elevation of something.

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    I take it by elevation you mean relative to some reference height (normally, sea-level). If it's just the elevation relative to the nearest ground level, that would be it's height, tallness, vertical size anyway. Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 2:19
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For chimneys (like the one in the photo), towers, skyscrapers, trees, people and anything else you can think whose height is purely vertical, native speakers will tend to prefer: tall. For mountains, buildings that are wide as well as tall, walls, women heels, and for ground use high.

but

However, look at how both adjectives are used here. And yet fully acceptable.

  • The world's tallest tree is hiding somewhere in California. (...) It's 369 feet high

Why did the writer prefer 369 feet high instead of tall? To avoid repetition? Because when measuring the distance from the ground, the word high just sounded better or perhaps more authoritative? I don't know! :)

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  • The highest tree would normally be the one growing at the highest altitude (or perhaps highest latitude), in either case right before timberline.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 27 at 3:19
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Regarding the original question, I think both are fine. (I'm Irish BTW.) But here's something to consider when to use "high" and when to use "tall". Imagine there is a small town with a big hill. At the bottom of this hill is a ten-story building. Every other building is a two-story building. And one of these two-story buildings sits at the top of the hill looking down on the ten-story building. In this example, I would say the building at the bottom of the hill is the tallest building in the town but the building at the top of the hill is the highest building in the town. Using this logic, I would say that it is more appropriate to say the building is tall but for a mountain, it doesn't really matter. The thing is, though, that logic and English don't always get along.

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Tall is generally for when you are measuring the distance from the ground. High is generally used when you don't really care about the exact distance from the ground. However, I liked the answer above with rod vs. flat-shaped objects. There is something to that.

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