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I live in South Korea, and as a rather-enthusiastic learner of English, there is a question that has bothered me for a long time. People here use the word "tier" in different way than other countries. If you say one thing is a "top tier", then it means that one belongs to the best grade, group, rank, etc. However, if you say another thing is a "1 tier", that means exactly the same(I think "1 tier" is also a broken English of "tier 1" since "1 tier" means a single group of rank).

Here is the example which made me ask this question today;

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This is a news article that says "Apple has PROMOTED S.Korean market to 1 tier(tier 1) after 12 years of service, and people are looking forward Apple's customer service to get better". According to what I know, if Apple has re-assigned S.Korean market as "1 tier(tier 1)", the article should have said "demoted" instead of "promoted", or if the journalist intended to mean "promotion", she should have said Apple has promoted S.Korean market as "top tier" instead of "1 tier(tier 1)".

I tried searching up google for other uses of TIER and found out that the absolute majority uses higher tier to describe superior thing, but there was only one case which uses this word in opposite way. Here. If I understood it right, since it's about optimizing a kind of computer system, more frequent I/O rate should mean "superior"(or primary) object, but it describes superior thing as tier 1 and inferior as tier 3. What makes me more confused is that the figure included in this document colors "tier 1" as gold, and "tier 3" as bronze.

I messed up my question a lot, so here is the simple one; Do tiers with higher numbers always mean better than those with lower numbers?

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  • Who won the race? The guy who was number 1 or the guy who was number 3? Tier 1 is the highest ranking.
    – Jim
    Sep 13, 2021 at 5:02
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    Is that your own translation of the Korean into English? It does read that way since you have included comments in the text. If that's the case we're really being asked to comment on your translation and use of English rather than a piece of English written by another English-speaking Korean. Your English is infinitely better than my non-existent Korean but I think we need a piece of English produced by someone else to make your point.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 13, 2021 at 6:26
  • @BoldBen I think you definitely got a point. That news article from KR to ENG is translated by me while still being confused about the exact use of "tier", so there could be a couple of misunderstandings in it. To make sure of what I understand, I'll take a time and wait for as many answers and examples as possible. Thanks for pointing out that.
    – JD Kim
    Sep 13, 2021 at 10:47
  • That does mean that I can ignore what was, for me, the most difficult part of the text which was "1 tier". We never label any noun with a 'cardinal number' in this way, we always place the number after the noun. We do, though, always place 'ordinal numbers' like "first", "second" and so on before the noun. I would say that, if Apple have placed S Korea in "tier 1" and it was, previously, in "tier 2", that would be a promotion. But there is some ambiguity because, in some cases, an organisation could define the tiers in the opposite order.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 13, 2021 at 17:11
  • Yes, I missed to write that in the question, but that is the exact reason why I think "1 tier" is broken English. It just feels naturally right(in terms of grammar) to say ordinally "1st tier" or cardinally "tier 1", and "1 tier" feels just broken. Through this small talk, you are helping me a lot in understanding the concept of tier, along with other answers. I appreciate you.
    – JD Kim
    Sep 13, 2021 at 20:19

1 Answer 1

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Do tiers with higher numbers always mean better than those with lower numbers?

No, and it's far more likely to be the other way round. But it can depend on context.

Some confusion might arise if the tiers are being considered as a progression, like rungs on a ladder. You start at the bottom (first tier, because that's the starting point) and end progress to the second tier and so on. Here, one might possibly refer to the stages as "Tier 1, tier 2..." but it would be more likely, I think, to use first and second. But it's obvious from the context that the first tier is the earliest/lowest stage in the progression.

However, without a great deal of context, say in "Acme Corporation is a Tier 1 supplier," then that would normally be taken to mean they are in the top group. With an example situation as described in Lexico's example sentence "Australia is in danger of creating a two-tier system of universities," the second tier is second-class. This usage, with lower numbers towards the top of the heap, is far more common.

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  • Your answer gives me a lot to think of. Using English as my second language, the first time and most cases I was introduced into this word "tier" was through computer game, not literature or textbook. Maybe that environment gave me this biased or fixed concept of the word. Thanks for your answers, especially the example sentence including other usages of "tier".
    – JD Kim
    Sep 13, 2021 at 20:25

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