Welcome to a new troublesome pair. I wonder when I’ll run out of these! I’ve had a load of suggestions to work through recently, but if you have a favourite you’d like me to write about, and it’s not already in the index, do let me know!
Older and elder are a pair of words that are quite similar, but, like other pairs, I have a preference for using particular ones in particular contexts, and I’ll share those!
Older means, oddly enough, of a greater age than something else. “John, at 34, is older than Matthew, who’s 32”.
Elder is slightly different – it means of a greater age than a set of people it’s being contrasted with. So “John is the elder sibling”. I prefer this usage, although of course you could use “older”.
As has been pointed out, I need to mention that elder/eldest refers to “of two” and “of more than two” respectively; the same with older/oldest. “John is the oldest sibling, but the older of my 2 boys”.
So, no huge distinction, but one can be found and enjoyed!
You can find more troublesome pairs here.