Elder vs. Older: What’s the Difference?

If you were looking for a word to describe someone who is more advanced in age than someone else, what word would you choose?

Would you pick elder or older? Is someone older or elder than someone else? Or would you settle on a different word entirely?

Well, for those writers stuck picking between elder and older, have no fear. In this post, I will clear up any confusion between these words, their differences, and their uses. After reading this post, you shouldn’t ever mix up elder vs. older again.

What is the Difference Between Elder and Older?

Broadly speaking, these two words have the same meanings and can be used interchangeably in most settings. For example,

  • He is my elder brother.
  • He is my older brother.
  • She is the elder of the two.
  • She is the older of the two.

In cases like those above, elder is simply a more formal version of the word older, and when comparing two persons, elder has no implication of advanced age, just more advanced than its comparison.

So, the elder brother in the first example isn’t necessarily old in the sense of the later years of his life; he is just older than his comparison.

When to Use Elder

elder versus older grammar rulesWhile these words can broadly be used to mean the same things, there are some circumstances that call for one over the other, depending on the context of your sentence.

Elder can be used to denote relatively old age, and when it does, it adds a component of respect for a person’s position or achievement.

  • He is an elder member of the Supreme Court.
  • Senator Smith is an elder statesman, having served over 30 years.
  • The elder officer was honored by his younger counterparts.

As you can see, elder, in all of the above cases, signals a level of respect that is not signaled when using older.

And, of course, you cannot forget the age-old saying, “Respect your elders.”

Elder, Eldest Refer to People, Not Objects

older versus elder differenceThe two words elder and eldest are used only when referring to people. They are not used when writing about animals or inanimate objects, such as clothing, furniture, etc.

The adjective elderly, however, is sometimes applied to other living things and, on rare occasions, to inanimate objects.

  • An elderly cat.
  • An elderly ship.

When to Use Older

grammar dictionary onlineIf the main point of your sentence is simply to showcase the fact of advanced age, then older is usually a better word choice. For example,

  • The public opinion poll was a survey of older Americans.
  • Older voters tend to show up at the polls more so than younger voters.

Elderly can also be used in such circumstances, although some say this word has acquired a negative connotation and should be substituted with words like senior citizen.

Older can be used to refer to people, animals, objects, etc. There are no restrictions when using older to make comparisons.

Older also has one additional use that does not belong to elder.

  • John is older than Steve.

This type of construction, for whatever reason, is not permitted when using the word elder. For example,

  • Steve has an elder brother. (Correct)
  • John is the elder of the two. (Correct)
  • John is elder than Steve. (Wrong)

Conversely, all of these forms are acceptable when using older.

  • Steve has an older brother. (Correct)
  • John is the older of the two. (Correct)
  • John is older than Steve. (Correct)

Summary

Since both words can broadly mean the same thing, you just need to remember the limitations of each word. Here are the main points of the older vs. elder confusion.

Elder adds a level of respect that older does not. Elder also cannot be used when referring to animals or objects.

Older is the better word choice in most situations. It’s used simply to refer to people or things far advanced in years of life.