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Had this conversation with a 26 year old male. He has finished a degree at Uni and told me I was wrong when I said you cannot call your younger brother your older brother. He is only older son to your mother who would refer to her three sons as "my youngest son, my older/elder son and my oldest/eldest son. He was so passionate about this (my three sons also told me I was wrong) I had to stop but at 47 I am wondering what is correct.

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    If he had three or more brothers all younger than himself he could say: the second eldest brother; the third eldest etc. – Mari-Lou A Nov 14 '13 at 9:37
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    "The oldest of my two younger brothers" would be explicit, although it leaves open whether or not you have an older brother. "The oldest of my two brothers, who are both younger than I" would be unambiguous. – Paddy Landau Nov 14 '13 at 13:09
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    Words like 'older' indicate the relation between things or persons, the person using tpsuch a word need not be one of the concerned persons. I agree it is ambiguous. – 11684 Nov 14 '13 at 14:39
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    That his mother can say it does not mean he can say it. Nobody could think the sons are older than their mother. He can maybe say "the older of my two brothers" but "my older brother" is a set phrase meaning "my brother who is older than me." – Kate Gregory Nov 14 '13 at 14:50
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    @PaddyLandau: Saying "the older of my brothers" would probably be just as good, since if the speaker were the middle child he would more likely say "my older brother", and if he were the youngest he would say "my eldest brother". If the speaker had some affinity to two people who were brothers to each other but was not their sibling [e.g. he is renting a room to people whom the listener knows to be brothers], he could say "the older brother". The choice of phrasing implies a lot about the relationships, even without stating it. – supercat Nov 14 '13 at 22:23
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To take it from from a linguistic boffin's standpoint, I guess that "older" is a deictic word: its meaning varies depending on usage. There's a handy illustration at Wikipedia's page for deixis. When you say "my older brother" you put yourself in the deictic centre. Your listener then should figure out the position of your brother relative to that centre.

As WS2 rightfully pointed out, you may with a degree of certainty say "he's my older brother" to an acquaintance who knows that you're the oldest of the flock, but not to just any John Doe.

That's because deictic words require contextual information to be fully understood, and your acquaintance will know that while you're at the deictic centre there's no way for you brother to be at the.. er.. deictic "above", because there's a.. hm.. "deictic ceiling" of the fact of your being the oldest.

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It would depend to whom he was talking. If it was someone who knew the family well presumably he would mention his brothers by name. If it was to someone who just happened to know he was the eldest, 'older brother' might just scrape in as acceptable speech. But if it was to someone who didn't know him or his family from Adam, for clarity's sake he would need to say 'The older of my two younger brothers'.

  • +1. Also, I think if he said 'my older brother' meaning the older of his (younger than himself) brothers, it would be most natural for him to stress older [and follow up with a clarification!], whereas if he were talking about a brother older than himself, he would not need to stress older unless it was in contrast to his younger (than himself) brother. – LarsH Nov 14 '13 at 22:06
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    Or he could mix age-referents by referring to "my older little brother"... – Hellion Nov 14 '13 at 23:03
  • I think saying "the older of my brothers" would imply the middle brother in a family of exactly three; "the oldest of my brothers" would imply the second-oldest in a family of at least three, and probably at least four, brothers. The speaker would have no reason to use such phrasing rather than "My older/oldest" brother unless he was older than the person in question. – supercat May 5 '14 at 16:26
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WS2 beat me to it, but here's another possible explanation...

In this case--you're both right. One can concoct a scenario where it is possible for him to justify calling his clearly younger brother an 'older' brother:

In the meaning you imply in your question, (and that most people expect when siblings use "old" or "young" as a comparative adjective,) older refers to the fact that one sibling has lived longer. So the sibling born first is old*est*, and old*er* than the next, and so on. The sibling born last is young*est*, young*er* than the next, and so on.

There is another meaning for older. In essence, older simply means 'has more age than', and so it is important to specify the frame of reference. What your son could be claiming (although he is really just being a pain) is that if he knew his brother a certain point in time in the past, and he still knows him now, then your youngest is actually, older.

He is "older" in that he has now accumulated more age than his previous self.

  • Yes, very contrived! But he would't say 'my older brother now goes to secondary school'. In that context he would say 'Now that my brother is older he goes to secondary school'. – WS2 Nov 14 '13 at 9:13
  • @WS2 It depends on how pedantic he wanted to be. I would argue that based on the above, he could indeed say that "my older brother now goes to secondary school." – THEAO Nov 14 '13 at 9:22
  • Not without sowing confusion. We are into the realm of Christmas-cracker riddles here. If my parents divorce at the same moment as my wife and I. My ex-wife marries my father, they have a child which is the younger brother as well as the uncle of the child she had with me. Or something like that. You know what I mean, if you take it all far enough you end up with someone being the aunt of uncle of themselves. – WS2 Nov 14 '13 at 10:10
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    And if you aren't careful you end up as your own grandpa. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_My_Own_Grandpa – BrianH Nov 14 '13 at 17:00
  • @BrianDHall And if you’re even more not careful, you could end up in the Rolling Stones for that! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 31 '15 at 0:51
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Here's one for you that ensued in a big argument. I have four older brothers. I referred to my next eldest, the third eldest as my youngest brother. I was told that I was dead wrong because he was not younger than me. But I am not wrong. It dosn't matter how you cut it he is still my youngest brother. I never said he was my younger brother, only the youngest of my brothers. Of my four brothers as a group, he is the youngest. Can anyone out there logically contest this?

  • +1 for emphasizing the importance of perspective in this question. It seems to me that there are two ways to approach the analysis. If we take as our starting point the fact that there are five brothers in your family, then you are indisputably the youngest (of the five). But if we take as our starting point the fact that you have four brothers in the family, then the one closest in age to you is unquestionably the youngest (of the four). – Sven Yargs Mar 31 '15 at 0:46
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If Abe, Ben, Cindi, Dave (listed young to old, with Abe, Ben, and Dave being male) are the siblings in a family, then Cindi can unambiguously refer to Abe, Ben, and Dave as follows:

• Abe: “my youngest brother” or “my younger younger brother”
• Ben: “my older younger brother”
• Dave: “my older brother”.

The phrase “my younger younger brother” is most likely to be used only facetiously or sententiously, since phrases “my youngest brother” (when there are more than two other brothers) or “the younger of my brothers” (when there are two other brothers) typically serve better. But phrases like “my youngest younger brother”, “my youngest older brother”, “my older younger brother”, “my younger older brother”, and “my oldest younger brother” all serve useful purposes in different cases.

If Cindi refers to Dave as “my oldest brother” rather than “my older brother”, the listener isn't told whether Dave is older vs younger than Cindi; some listeners might assume Cindi is older than all her brothers, some may assume she is younger, and some will realize they don't know.

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It seems to me that it would be correct, provided you've already excluded yourself from the group you're referring to. Like others who've posted here, I agree that it could lead to some misunderstandings and should be refrained from. When I grew up as an only child, I ran across the same sort of situation with the large number of cousins in my family.

Because he made it clear that he was the oldest child, he had already defined boundaries which excluded him from the group of "my younger brothers." However, this could make sentences confusing.

"I'm the oldest of three brothers. We all run a deli. My youngest brother works in the back while my older brother takes orders at the counter."

Saying "the older one" would work better than saying "my older brother." However I believe the statement can still be understood. We could also employ the word elder here to avoid some of the confusion in using older/younger together.

"I'm the oldest of three brothers. My youngest brother works in the back while my elder, younger brother takes orders at the counter."

"The older of my brothers." Comes across as a grammatically awkward statement. It doesn't sound right when I attempt to annunciate it. I could be wrong, since I don't have a PHD and am just an ESL teacher, but it doesn't sound smooth.

I have also heard people differentiate which younger or older sibling they were talking about by using bigger and smaller. "My big, younger brother ate the cake."

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Consider:

"My siblings are not so nice to each other. My sister is still very young - it is horrible that she is always being bullied by my older brother. "

First I give a context in which I am comparing my siblings among each other - making the interpretation of 'older' as 'older than me' less likely. Furthermore, I talk about my young sister, to contrast her youth to my brothers relative oldness. Also I talk about my sister instead of my brother, so as to make it more logical to use the phrase "my older brother" instead of "the older one". I think all these factors should lead one to believe that I am calling the brother older in comparison to my sister, and not to myself.

In these circumstances I wouldn't know any other way to make clear that the relative oldness of my brother is in comparison to my sister, instead of me. Therefore, anyone would be justified in interpreting the sentence the way I meant it.

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    Actually, I read your statement as indicating that the brother is older than you. It would have made more sense to say that "…she is always being bullied by her older brother," to convey the meaning you intend. – danfuzz Nov 14 '13 at 19:30
  • OK, then what about "My siblings behave worse than yours. My sister is still very young - it is horrible that she is always being bullied by my older brother. " In that case it would make more sense to use 'my', in order to emphasize that I am talking about my siblings instead of yours. – Tim Kuipers Nov 15 '13 at 13:58
  • I guess my principal statement is that it can be correct to interpret 'my older brother' as referring to my brother which is older than someone else as me, whenever the one who uttered the thing did in fact mean that, and was inclined to use this somewhat confusing way of saying it due to context. The empirical question of the existence of such context shouldn't make a difference for answering the question whether it is possible to refer to your younger brother as 'my older brother'. The fact just is that 'older' isn't necessarily interpreted as 'older than me'. – Tim Kuipers Nov 15 '13 at 14:04
  • I agree that it's possible to construct a context where "my older brother" successfully coveys the meaning of a brother that's younger than you. I still don't think you've managed to come up with such a one, though. – danfuzz Nov 15 '13 at 18:31
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Let's keep it nice and simple; and say

"My older younger brother."

Everyone will get the meaning of that phrasing.

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To say "my older brother" puts you at the centre of the group to which you are applying the comparative adjective, and therefore includes you in the comparison (and therefore implies older than you). To say "the older of my brothers" puts the brothers at the centre of the group, and applies the comparison to the brothers only. There is no implied relationship with you. This ties in nicely with @CopperKettle's comments.

My main point of comment, though, relates to your

He has finished a degree at Uni...

I seriously hope this doesn't factor into your judgement about his credibility to be authoritative in this matter. If so, I've done a PhD, and I agree with you.

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