Is the older of two also the oldest of two?

If you have two children, ages 10 and 12, is the 12-year-old the oldest? Or is she the older? Can you say she’s your eldest child? Or must you say she’s the elder child?

The answer, believe it or not, is very controversial. Some people say that when you’re comparing only two things, you can’t use the superlative — the “est” form — and that only the comparative — the “er” form — will do.

Even the language bosses are bitterly divided.

“When two items are being compared, a comparative adjective is needed, ‘the greater of the two’; when more than two are being compared, the superlative is needed, ‘the greatest of the three,’” says the 2003 edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage, which calls it a “blunder” to use the superlative in comparisons of two.

Other experts make a strong case that superlatives are fine for comparisons of two.

“No one will misunderstand you if you say, ‘She is the oldest of the two,’” writes Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “The rule serves no useful purpose at all. It is therefore a perfect shibboleth, serving no practical function except to separate those who observe the rule from those who don’t.”

Here's more in my recent column about how to navigate this language issue.

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