Have you ever wondered why a skyscraper is “tall” but a shelf is “high”? Both words can refer to something’s height, but there is a difference. Read our guide below to make sure you can use these terms correctly in your writing.
High (Far Above the Ground)
When we use the adjective“high,” we often mean “far above the ground.” This can be about something’s height, such as a mountain or building:
The Jeddah Tower is 1km high.
The high fence kept the children out of the park.
Usually, though, we only use “high” to refer to inanimate things, not people.
We also use “high” to describe something as far above the ground:
The coconuts were high up in the tree.
The top shelf was too high to reach.
Furthermore, “high” sometimes refers to things unrelated to height. For instance, other adjectival uses of this word include:
Above average in level or amount (e.g., Our product is in high demand)
Rank or influence (e.g., She holds the highest rank in the army)
The top range of sounds (e.g., You should hear her sing the high notes!)
Under the influence of drugs (e.g., He lost his job because he was high)
A high point in something (e.g., Sales hit a record high)
A feeling of excitement/intoxication (e.g., Skydiving is such a giddy high)
As you can see, then, this word has many meanings! But how does it compare to “tall”? And what are the differences?
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Tall (Height from Bottom to Top)
The word “tall” is also an adjective and also refers to height, but we use it slightly differently to “high.” The main difference is that this term only refers to height. As such, we can use it to refer to something’s height:
The Jeddah Tower is 1km tall.
The tall mountain cast a shadow on the valley below.
And, unlike “high,” we use “tall” for living things, such as people and animals:
The boy had grown tall over the summer.
Giraffes are very tall animals.
However, we do not use it for something that is a distance above the ground (e.g., we would not say “the tall shelf is hard to reach”). Nor can we use it for any of the other uses of “high” set out above (e.g., it would be wrong to refer to “tall blood pressure” or “tall expectations”).
Summary: High or Tall?
While these words are sometimes interchangeable, this isn’t always true:
When referring to height, we use high for inanimate objects of great height or distances from the ground. It also has several uses unrelated to height, such as when referring to the degree or level of something.
We use tall for the height of inanimate objects and living things, but we do not use it for distances from the ground.