Word Confusion: Elder versus Eldest

Posted November 27, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 17 February 2018

It’s a subtle word confusion, elder versus eldest, and as long as you remember that she is elder than you while he is the eldest of all, you’ll be fine. And, I can hear y’all wondering WTF?

Had to grab your attention, didn’t I, lol. Elder requires two, whether that two is people, critters, computers, electronic gadgets, what have you, you have to have two. Now if you’re going to talk about more than two, you have to switch over to eldest.

Eldest is also only an adjective, which means it requires a word to follow it. The eldest … son, daughter, child, woman, man, priest, president, baby, quilt … Yes, some of these possible combinations sound awkward, which is why oldest is a common substitute.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Elder Eldest
Credit to: Dictionary.com: elder and eldest

“Afghan Elder and His Cat” by English: Sgt. Teddy Wade is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tsar Alexander III, his wife, and 3 of their children

“Tsar Alexander III with His Wife and Their Three Eldest Children” by Sergey Lvovich Levitsky is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective 1, 4; Noun 1, 2, 3
Plural: elders
A comparison of old with eldest as the superlative 1

Use elder when speaking of two people.

A superlative of old with elder as a comparative

Use eldest when speaking of three or more people.

Of greater age

  • Older

Of higher rank

  • Senior

Of or pertaining to former times

  • Earlier

4 Born earlier

  • A senior
  • Compare older

[In piquet and similar card games] Denoting or relating to the nondealer (the elder hand), who has certain advantages in the play

[Archaic] Prior in rank, position, or office

[Archaic] Of a previous time

  • Former

1 A person who is older or higher in rank than oneself

  • One’s senior

An aged person

An influential member of a tribe or community, often a chief or ruler

  • A superior

A presbyter

[In certain Protestant churches] A lay member who is a governing officer, often assisting the pastor in services

[Mormon Church] A member of the Melchizedek priesthood

Any tree or shrub belonging to the genus Sambucus, of the honeysuckle family, having pinnate leaves, clusters of white flowers, and red or black, berrylike fruit 2

A.k.a., elderberry

Any of various unrelated plants, such as box elder and marsh elder 3

[Anthropological] A senior member of a tribe who has influence or authority 4


  • First-born
  • Of greatest age

Being the oldest, especially the oldest surviving child of the same parents

Jane is the elder daughter (of the two).

an elder officer

Much that was forbidden by elder custom is accepted today.

He’s my elder.

Elderberries make a great wine.

He is an Elder in the church.

Jane is the eldest daughter (of the three).

My eldest brother is not able to visit.

My eldest sister is coming for tea.

I am the eldest born, but John is the eldest son.

Usage Notes: The word elder is being increasingly used, as a more respectful way of referring to older people: elder care, elder abuse.
Noun: eldership
History of the Word:
1 First known use: before 900

Middle English; Old English eldra, comparative of eald

2 First known use: before 900

Middle English eldre, elrene, ellerne, Old English ellærn.

Relates to Middle Low German ellern.

3 Old English ellern.

Related to Old Norse elrir, Old High German erlīn, Old Slavonic jelǐcha, Latin alnus.

4 Old English eldra, comparative of eald meaning old; related to Old Norse ellri, Old High German altiro, Gothic althiza.

First known use: before 900

Middle English; Old English eldesta, superlative of eald.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits

All in the Family is Carl Purcell’s own work under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

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