Confusing words: high vs. tall

We use tall to say that something is above average height.

High means ‘having a large distance from top to bottom’ or ‘a long way above the ground’.

We often use high when we speak about inanimate things (non-living things).

If you’re not sure whether the adjective you need is high or tall, try thinking about the overall size of the object:

  • We use tall mainly for things which are narrower or thinner than they are high: tall people, tall trees, tall buildings (with a lot of floors).
  • We prefer to use high for things which are very wide: high mountains, high walls.

 

high vs. tall

Other things to remember

  • We say something is high when it is out of our reach or far above the ground:
    a high shelf, a high window.
  • When using measurements we use tall for people, but usually high for objects:
    Steven’s 1m 80cm tall.
    The tree is about 20m high tall.
  • Things which can be high: fences, walls, mountains, hills, ceilings, clouds.
  • Things which can be tall: people, trees, buildings, ladders, animals.

Examples of high and tall in sentences

  • How tall is Lionel Messi?
  • Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world.
  • The prison is surrounded by very high walls and fences.
  • Atlas Cedars are tall trees.
    BUT The tree is about 30m high tall.

Feel free to use the comments below to write other examples or ask a question. What are the rules in your language – are high and tall used the same way as in English? Is there a difference?

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart

10 Comments

  1. Cent M - October 25, 2013, 1:51 am Reply

    excellent

  2. Abdullatif - November 2, 2013, 5:19 am Reply

    it is very helpful, thank you.

  3. Alessandro - January 8, 2014, 8:47 am Reply

    Dear Stuart,
    I want to thank you for being clear and simple in all your explanations!

    Could you give me further information about the differences between CLIENT, CUSTOMER and CONSUMER?

    I’m sorry for my English

    Regards

    Alessandro

    • Stuart Cook - January 8, 2014, 8:44 pm Reply

      Hi, Alessandro

      Your question is a bit off-topic – we’re covering tall and high here. I’ll look at customer, client, etc in another post soon.

  4. Phinnefer - October 22, 2014, 12:44 am Reply

    Thank you for your understandable explanation.
    Very helpful.

  5. Lee - December 10, 2014, 2:34 am Reply

    Clear, precise, and explained in layman terms. Very helpful!

  6. Ann S - March 6, 2016, 6:03 pm Reply

    Doesn’t the plane in which an object exists come into this discussion of tall vs high? I keep hearing people refer to “tall ceilings” but it’s the walls leading to that ceiling that are “tall” resulting in a ceiling that is “high”. Do you agree?

    • Jeff - April 27, 2016, 12:15 am Reply

      I hear that quite often and you’re absolutely right. Walls are tall, but ceilings are high.

  7. Grey - August 7, 2016, 2:19 pm Reply

    Hello Stuart, thanks for the article, the most understandable I’ve found 🙂
    Can I say that ‘a dinosaur is 12 metres high’ – high is here because dinosaurs are wide or can I say it’s because they’re ‘extending above the normal level’ (from dictionary), I mean can I use it as an explanation? Sorry for a clumsy sentence 🙂
    And I’ve found another explanation to the topic but it’s a bit confusing (can you comment it? Thanks.) :
    tall expresses height, and it’s used to compare the height of an object or living thing with the height of other objects or living things:
    That building is tall. (in comparing that building to other buildings)
    Max is tall. (in comparing Max to other people)
    high expresses elevation, and it’s used to describe objects or living things having a fixed reference that have been raised or lifted upwards:
    That building is high. (That building is raised up from the ground)
    Max is high. (Max’s mood is elevated; Max is high on chocolate)
    Walls are raised up, or high, and mountains, being a natural part of the landscape are elevated, or high, so if a structure, say, a building, is considered to have a fixed reference, then its elevation is expressed as ‘high’, but if fixed reference is not being considered, then its height is expressed as tall. A tower or a building, for example, could be viewed as either a fixed structure, e.g., a high tower; a high building, or a non-fixed structure, e.g., a tall tower; a tall building. It all depends on perception, or how we view the world around us.
    In short, the gerenal rule of thumb is: If fixed, then high, and if non-fixed, then tall, and since perception determines usage, speakers will differ. To me, the mountain is high, whereas to my colleague it’s tall. Usage is a matter of how one perceives the world.

  8. Haimanti Sengupta - September 7, 2016, 5:49 pm Reply

    Is ” tall hill “correct ?

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