12

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?

17

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.

  • 2
    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 Mar 11 '13 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". – AlbeyAmakiir Mar 11 '13 at 22:10
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    Doesn't the song go "ain't no mountain high enough" ...? – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Mar 11 '13 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. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '13 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. Mar 18 '13 at 22:39
9

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

  • 5
    Mauna Kea is taller than Everest, but Everest is higher than Mauna Kea. – Andrew Grimm Mar 12 '13 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! – FumbleFingers Mar 12 '13 at 13:25
2

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! :)

1

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. – FumbleFingers Mar 19 '13 at 2:19
0

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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