Often, two English words have very similar meanings as well as very similar spellings. Such is the case with “eldest” and “oldest.” These two words have primarily the same meaning but differ in usage. How do you know which one to use?
“Eldest” can only refer to a person, whereas “oldest” is much more general and can refer to a wide variety of people, places, or things. “Eldest” is more formal than “oldest” and should be used when referring to elders in the community. However, we can use them both to compare three or more people’s ages
This article will help you identify the difference between “eldest” and “oldest” and will help you determine the best time and context to use each one.
What Does “Eldest” Mean?
“Eldest” refers to a person of the greatest age or with the most seniority; the oldest person (source).
We often compare people, places, or things in English by adding “-er” or “-est” to a base adjective. We use “-est” when there are more than two things to compare. In the case of “eldest,” the word refers to the “most eld” person out of a group of people or, in more familiar terms, the person who was born first (source).
“Eldest” is often confused with “oldest.” “Oldest” can describe a person of the greatest age or the firstborn (much like “eldest”). However, it also can describe any other noun, such as a location that is the greatest age, an ancient period, or any item that has existed longer than other items in a group of three or more (source).
How Do You Use “Eldest”?
Where “oldest” may refer to anything comparatively older, “eldest” refers specifically to three or more people, often in a family lineage or tribal community.
It is important to remember there need to be three or more people included in the comparison to use “eldest” properly. If we compare only two people, we use the comparative form “elder.”
- Incorrect: The eldest of the two sisters wore a pink dress.
In this example, there are only two sisters, so the speaker should use the comparative “elder” to describe the older of the two:
- Correct: The elder of the two sisters wore a pink dress.
We can fix the same sentence by increasing the number of people in the comparison.
- Correct: The eldest of the three sisters wore a pink dress.
In this example, there are now three sisters; therefore, we can correctly use “eldest” to describe the oldest of the three.
As you can see, “eldest” can appear in English sentences as either an adjective or a noun.
Using Eldest as an Adjective
In English grammar, adjectives words describe nouns. Adjectives have “degrees” that create comparisons.
In the base, or “positive” form, the adjective describes a noun:
- My great-grandmother is old.
In this example, “old” is a predicate adjective describing the subject as “great-grandmother.” Notice the subject, a noun, is purple, and the adjective is colored dark blue.
In the comparative form, the adjective creates a comparison between two things, often by adding “-er” to the positive form:
- That is Frank and Johnny; Frank is the elder brother.
In this example, “elder” is an adjective (dark blue) that makes a comparison between Frank and Johnny, identifying Frank as the brother, a noun (purple), who is greater in age, or born first. “Elder” compares only two people, Frank and Johnny.
In the superlative form, the adjective creates a comparison between three or more things, often by adding “-est” to the positive form:
- The eldest member of the club begins the meeting.
In this example, “eldest” describes the person of the greatest age compared to many people in a club.
You can find more detailed information about comparative and superlative forms in the article Clearer of More Clear: Understanding the Proper Usage of Degrees of Comparison.
Eldest as a Noun
You can also use “eldest” as a noun in English sentences, which has primarily the same meaning. However, instead of describing a person, it is a person who is the oldest of three or more people (source).
The comparative form, “elder,” can also function as a noun representing an older person or the highest-ranking member of a church, tribe, or other community units. However, remember to use comparative forms for two people and superlative forms for three or more people.
- The eldest represented the family at the reunion.
In this example, “eldest” is the sentence’s subject and refers to the oldest person in a family of three or more.
- Of all the children’s names, he forgot that of the eldest.
In this example, “eldest” is the sentence’s direct object (dark green) and refers to the firstborn of three or more children.
When Can You Use “Eldest”?
You can use “eldest” any time you speak of a person who is the oldest in a family or holds the highest position in a tribe, church, or organized family-type unit.
Since it is an adjective, “eldest” does not change if the verb tense changes. You can use it with past, present, or future tense verbs.
- Present tense: We give seniority to the eldest participant.
- Past tense: We gave seniority to the eldest participant.
- Future tense: We will give seniority to the eldest participant.
In What Context Can You Use “Eldest”?
You can properly use “eldest” in formal and informal settings, but you will hear it more often in formal statements.
You can use “eldest” in both formal and informal situations. It is a polite reference to the oldest person in a group. “Eldest” is slightly more formal than “oldest,” but generally, they are interchangeable when referring to people.
- Beth is the eldest of seven children.
- Beth is the oldest of seven children.
It is common to see “eldest” used in sentences that require more reverence, such as those referring to royalty, tribal communities, or church hierarchies:
- The eldest member of an American Indian tribe is often a “wisdom-keeper” (source).
Using “Eldest” in a Full Sentence
In review, you can use “eldest” as either an adjective or a noun when describing or referring to a person, but not a place or an object. “Eldest” is in the superlative form and creates a degree that means the firstborn, oldest, or literally “most eld.”
Let’s look at some more examples of how you may see “eldest” in English sentences.
“Eldest” often stands as an adjective describing a noun.
In the following example, “eldest” is an adjective that describes the subject, “child.” It implies that there are three or more sons or daughters in the monarch’s family, and the firstborn acts as the ambassador.
- The monarch’s eldest child acts as an ambassador to other nations.
In the following example, “eldest” is an adjective that describes the object of a preposition, “member.” It implies three or more members on the board, and the award was given to the member of the greatest age.
- The foundation granted the award to the eldest member of the board.
“Eldest” may also act as a noun in either the subject or object position.
In the following example, “eldest” is a noun and the object of a preposition. It implies that there are three or more children at the home, and this particular package is intended for the oldest child in the group.
- When you get to the children’s home, the smallest package goes to the eldest.
In this example, “eldest” is a noun and the sentence’s subject. Again, it implies three or more children in this family, and the firstborn son has chosen to leave his home state for school.
- The eldest decided to attend a trade school in another state, which worried his mother.
In this example, “eldest” is a noun and predicate nominative (noun). It implies that there are three or more cousins, and Becky is the firstborn. It is important to remember that when “eldest” follows a linking verb, it must be a noun.
- Of all of the Smith cousins, Becky is the eldest.
As you can see, you can use “eldest” in various ways in a sentence. It is important to remember to use it only in reference to a person and not a place or an object.
When Not to Use “Eldest”
We do not use “eldest” to describe places or objects. Only use it when describing a person.
When you need to describe a place or a thing, it is correct to use “oldest,” not “eldest.”
- Incorrect: The library is the eldest building in town.
- Correct: The library is the oldest building in town.
If you are confused by“eldest” and “oldest,” it is safer to choose to use the more general option, “oldest,” since you can properly use it to create a comparison among three or more people, places, or objects.
It is also incorrect to use “eldest” as a predicate adjective after a linking verb (source):
- Incorrect: Katy is eldest.
Using “eldest” as a predicate nominative (noun) is better:
- Katy is the eldest.
Or you can replace “eldest” with “oldest”:
- Katy is the oldest.
What Can You Use Instead of “Eldest”?
The best replacement for “eldest” is “oldest.” Since these two words mean essentially the same thing, it is acceptable to use “oldest” in place of “eldest,” especially if you are unsure if “eldest” is correct in context (source).
You have already seen how easily you can interchange “eldest” and “oldest” in some of the example sentences, but you can also use “firstborn” in the same manner as “eldest.” “Firstborn” is also correct as an adjective and a noun, just like “eldest.”
- George is the firstborn son of James and Judy.
In this example, “firstborn” describes the son. The speaker could easily replace “firstborn” with “eldest.”
- The throne always goes to the firstborn.
In this example, “firstborn” is a noun, but the speaker could easily use “eldest” instead.
Comparative and Superlative Adjectives
In English, we use adjectives in comparative and superlative forms to create degrees: the comparative and superlative adjectives. “Eldest” follows the most common rule for creating comparatives and superlatives of one-syllable words: add “-er” or “-est” at the end of the term.
There are additional rules for creating comparatives and superlatives of one-syllable words that end in “e” or end with a vowel and a consonant. There are also different rules for creating degrees of words with multiple syllables and a list of irregular words such as “good,” “better,” and “best” (source).
We can also create degrees of many words by adding “more” or “most” before an adjective. You will often have the choice to use “most” or “-est.” Which word you use will depend on how much emphasis you want to imply. However, you cannot use the two together.
For more information on comparative forms, check out our article Simpler or More Simple: Understanding the Comparative Form.
The chart below shows more examples of adjectives in positive, comparative, and superlative forms.
|(base form)||Compares two things||Compares three or more things|
|Many one or two-syllable words add -er or -est.|
|We need to double the consonant at the end of some words.|
|Two syllable words ending in ‘y’ – change ‘y’ to ‘i’.|
|We use “more” and “most” instead of endings for some words.|
|Some of our words have irregular forms:|
|Note that more & most can stand alone in comparative forms.|
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
You can also refer to our article Denser or More Dense: Using the Comparative Form of Dense.
Sometimes, it is challenging to understand how to use comparative forms in English sentences. Generally, remember that one-syllable words and two-syllable words that end in “-y” usually use the “-er” and “-est” endings, while words with more than two syllables typically use “more” or “most” in front of the base word.
It is especially challenging with the abundant amount of irregular comparative words in the English language, but persist and practice often, and you will find that it gets easier.