Q&A: Elder vs older

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re respecting our elders…

Q: Hi AWC, my workmate went to see the stage musical The Book of Mormon and now she won’t stop singing “Hello… my name is Elder Price”…

A: Oh dear, you poor thing. The AWC office is also obsessed with it.

Q: That would be torture. But anyway, we digress.

A: We do. So, what’s your question?

Q: It’s to do with the word “elder” – not in a Mormon context, but how it differs from “older”. The same for “eldest” and “oldest” – is there a rule for these?

A: Great question Elder Q.

Q: Stop it.

A: Okay. So, “elder” can be a noun – a tree, a leader of a tribe, Mormon position or simply the name for older people, e.g. “Respect your elders”. But we want to look at the adjective, right?

Q: Yes, that’s right. Let’s keep well away from Elder Price and all his kin.

A: According to the Macquarie Dictionary, the adjective “elder” has three meanings. It can mean older (“her elder brother”), senior (“an elder statesman”) or earlier (“in elder times”). The first one is most common – and “elder” typically only relates to people’s ages. Not things.

Q: Wait. Elder MEANS older? Case closed – interchangeable words!

A: Well yes. You can say “My elder/older brother” or “She is the elder/older of the two”. However, you can’t say “This book is elder than that one” or “You can get married when you’re elder”.

Q: So “older” has more reach?

A: That’s right. “Older” and “oldest” are far broader than “elder” and “eldest”. You can use them for people AND things. For example, you can say that this vintage clock is the oldest of its kind. Never eldest. Also, if looking at George Clooney and Barack Obama, you’d ask “who’s older?”. Not “elder”.

Q: So who IS older?

A: George, by about three months.

Q: Good to know. And why do you have a vintage clock just sitting here?

A: For occasions like this. Anyway, there are plenty more uses for “older”. You could say you prefer the older version of Battlestar Galactica or that your child is growing older before your very eyes. Never elder.

Q: Or that your date looks older than their online picture…

A: Um.

Q: I had a friend who told me that. Let’s move on.

A: Gladly. “Oldest” is a superlative adjective – the top of the chain. You simply can’t get any older when you’ve reached “oldest”. For example, the oldest person alive or the oldest restaurant in the world.

Q: Ooooh, what IS the oldest restaurant in the world?

A: Apparently it’s Botin Restaurant in Madrid, Spain.

Q: I can picture their slogan now: “Oldest establishment, freshest ingredients”.

A: Cute. Meanwhile, ”elder” and “eldest” are confined just to people’s ages – usually family members. And in most cases, “elder” is indeed interchangeable with “older”.

Q: Most cases?

A: The only exception is when it’s the other meaning, i.e. “elder statesman”. “Elder” adds a layer of respect that “older” doesn’t replicate.

Q: So to recap. If I’m referring to ages of people, I can use either for “Eldest/oldest male in the family” or “His elder/older sister”. But for all other scenarios, go with “older”.

A: Yes, that’s a fair summary. And remember, you can’t say someone is “elder than someone else” – that kind of comparison is for “older” only.

Q: I’m sure if I got that wrong, there would be elder pay!

A: Oh dear.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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