If you have a collection of things that are related to one another, can you use "eldest" to denote the oldest, or should that term only be used with respect to people?

Another question on this site: What's the difference between “eldest” and “oldest”?, partly explains when "eldest" may be used, but doesn't clarify if it must always pertain to a person or persons, or whether "eldest" can be also applied to things which are not people.

To give an example, I wrote in a comment elsewhere today:

As a lifelong Phone Phreak, I can only look back on what was once the Bell System with fond memories. It, and the Bell operating companies that Verizon originated from, are as much a thing of the past as the Pullman Company that manufactured our eldest Red Line trains.

I chose to use "eldest" rather than "oldest", because I wanted to express a certain respect for something that was built in a previous era, yet has endured longer than expected. I wanted to suggest the sort of respect one would associate with an elderly person who had reached a ripe old age.

To explain, here in Boston, there is a family with three or four models of Red Line trains. They're related to one another, but from different generations. The oldest were manufactured in 1969 by a once great American company whose name was synonymous with train car (and luggage). These trains have far exceeded their expected lifetime, but are still in service every day.

Was it grammatically correct to use "eldest" in this context?

  • Possible duplicate of What's the difference between "eldest" and "oldest"? Dec 12, 2015 at 7:08
  • Whilst the card playing example gives a specific "no" to your question in the strictest sense, the sentence in your example comes across understandable but a little unnatural to me, whether because you have not sufficiently anthropomorphised the train line family or for some other reason that I can't put my finger on.
    – wwkudu
    Dec 12, 2015 at 7:21
  • Jimi Oke's accepted answer '... both eldest and oldest refer to the greatest in age. The crucial difference, however, lies in the fact that eldest can only be used for related persons, while oldest can be used for any person, place or thing in a group of related or unrelated elements....' certainly makes this a duplicate. Dec 12, 2015 at 23:28
  • @EdwinAshworth Although they're related, the trains are not persons. Are you saying then, that it's not grammatically correct to use "eldest" in this context?
    – ElmerCat
    Dec 12, 2015 at 23:34
  • 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously' is grammatical. But I wouldn't advise people to use such a sentence without a very good and unusual reason. It's not idiomatic (and, if it weren't so famous a sentence, would sound ridiculous). But you haven't commented on the duplicate status: Jimi Oke answers 'if it must always pertain to a person or persons, or whether "eldest" can be also applied to things which are not people.' Dec 12, 2015 at 23:44

3 Answers 3


Thanks to anthropomorphic personification you can treat anything like a person. Just think of it as a person. For example, my computer sometimes gets moody and won't talk to me until I give her a little break from work.

That said, What's the difference between "eldest" and "oldest"? In a nutshell it's that the set of things being compared in age must be related in some way for eldest to have meaning. If it could be said that your four models of Red Line trains are from the same family (and you already have) then referring to one as the eldest is simply keeping the family metaphor going.

So, it's not literally true, but it is grammatically correct. Grammar doesn't care about literal truth.

  • How is this not a duplicate? And 'Thanks to anthropomorphic personification you can treat anything like a person.' But we don't; 'my eldest pair of socks' would correctly generate some very strange looks (but no hits in a Google search). Anthropomorphism has to be handled carefully so as not to appear ludicrous. And what has grammar got to do with the correct choice of synonym? Dec 12, 2015 at 7:14
  • @EdwinAshworth Can and do are not the same. Just because you don't say 'my eldest pair of socks' doesn't mean you can't. Proper grammar offers no assurance against strange looks. Alice in Wonderland is thoroughly ludicrous but not because of the grammar. I addressed the partial duplicate by linking it. I see no reason to close the question over it. This issue isn't even in the title. Dec 12, 2015 at 13:52
  • So now we're offering anything that can grammatically constructed as acceptable, rather than what sounds like normal English. That's what an unqualified 'can' implies. I thought Chomsky had convinced everybody of the untenableness of this stance. Your comment about anthropomorphism is pertinent but not provided with a suitable caveat.... Dec 12, 2015 at 23:45
  • These Google Ngrams show idiomatic preferences. Dec 12, 2015 at 23:45
  • @Edwin Ashworth we were asked: "Was it grammatically correct to use "eldest" in this context?" The untenable position is expecting my answer to make sense when taken out of context. Also, your Ngram choices completly ignore the family metaphor. Dec 15, 2015 at 3:58

A common term in card games is the 'eldest hand', the hand first deal a card. The word definitely does not apply only to people.


Maybe the difference is more obvious with elder-older. elderly - somewhat old but with some prospect still ahead

elder, eldest is suggesting rank, influence, respect, importance

older, oldest is just about age

her eldest son could mean oldest surviving child or first-born, so it contains a grain of respect

No, you do not have to use it with people, but it is suggesting a different perspective anyway. However it is still an anthropomorphic adjective.

elder may have the meaning of earlier days, my elder custom = previous custom that I do not hold any longer, but it is still anthropomorphic.

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