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I've read both forms in newspapers and online news: elder brother and older brother. What's the difference between them? When should I use which?

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Elder has a slightly older (no pun intended) feel to it. A little more elevated, stilted, whatever. –  Robusto Dec 16 '13 at 18:47
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Closely related: What's the difference between “eldest” and “oldest”? –  choster Dec 16 '13 at 19:53

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

They are both essentially the same and are for the most part interchangeable and no one would notice or correct you. That said, 'elder' will typically sound a little more formal than 'older'

In typical usage, I personally would say "My/his/her/their older brother" when speaking of a specific person's sibling. I would say "The elder brother/sister/sibling" to refer to the oldest of a group of siblings. I suppose that also brings out another point: I would typically use elder only when referring to the oldest of the group (I would not say "his elder brother" to refer to the the second-born from a set of three siblings, where 'his' refers to the third-born).

That said, they are almost completely interchangeable and at worst will lead to mild confusion as to which older/elder person is being referred to when there are multiple choices.

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Therein lies the problem since I have used "elder" as you have, but can also see using "eldest" in that situation. If it weren't for the common expression, "elder statesman", I'm not even sure we'd hear "elder" used much anymore. –  Kristina Lopez Dec 16 '13 at 18:54

They are largely synonyms, elder being slightly more high-brow. With brother you can use both, although there are situations where this is not the case, as in elder (not: older) statesman, e.g.

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Basically, they are the same, but there is a slight difference in their meaning. When referring to someone who is older than you in your family or someone who has a close relationship with you, you should use "elder".

The usual comparative and superlative forms of old are older and oldest: •My brother is older than me. •The palace is the oldest building in the city. In literary or formal writing, elder and eldest may be used when comparing the ages of people, especially members of the same family. As adjectives, they are only used before a noun and you cannot say “elder than”: •my older/elder sisterthe older/elder of their two childrenI’m the oldest/eldest in the family.
Oxford Advanced American Dictionary s.v. elder

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While I agree that they are essentially the same, I disagree with the statement that you should use elder with someone in your family. Siblings will usually refer to eachother as "my older/younger brother/sister" –  Doc Dec 16 '13 at 18:46
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Is this an opinion or do you have a source that recommends that usage of "elder"? –  Kristina Lopez Dec 16 '13 at 18:52
    
    
The quoted source does not state that elder is preferable to older, but rather that elder may be used when comparing ages - and that this especially occurs when comparing members of the same family (You would be less likely to use elder when comparing two buildings, for example; the only time it might be more common would be to be to say "the elder of the two [objects]"). –  Doc Dec 17 '13 at 4:45

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