Sure age is just a number, but it’s just a number that you have talked about in the past, a number you’ve probably talked about this week, and a number you’ll most certainly talk about in the years to come. Talking about your age is almost inevitable when you are meeting someone new, introducing yourself, or making small talk with acquaintances (*people who are not strangers, but not quite a friend*). Because speaking about your age is so common and something you’ll most likely do at least once in the next few days, it’s important that you know how to tell someone how old you are in English, or talk about the past and accurately express how old you were. Oddly enough many non-English speakers have a hard time expressing this; they often use the wrong verb or preposition because of translations or are not familiar with the correct structures needed for the various ways. Well today, I’ve got you covered! We will talk about the verbs and prepositions to use (and those not to use) in order to tell your age in English, how to express upcoming birthdays, and the best way to use descriptions to talk about one’s age. Oh! There’s also a special bonus at the end, a couple of idioms related to age… so make sure you keep scrolling!
Using TO BE
Although it’s not common to just come right out (*immediately*) and ask someone’s age, the question will definitely come up (*happen*) in conversations. The correct way to ask for this information is, “How old are you?” (or “How old is Lucy?”). Note that the verb in this sentence is TO BE, and needs to be accurately conjugated (*put into the correct form*) based on the subject. The answer to these questions would be, “I am 29 (years old).” (or “Lucy is 29 (years old).” It is not necessary to include ‘years old,’ as the context implies what the number is.
I am sure this information is already known to you, as it’s generally the start of all English lessons (name, age, country of residence, etc..). The confusion most often comes in when we have to change the tenses, or use modals. So let’s look at some more examples. Just a note that I will use parentheses ( ) to show information that is not required, but OK to use or included for context.
Simple Past: How old were you (when you visited Spain)? [How old was Lucy….?]
–I was 20 (years old) (when I visited Spain). [Lucy was….]
Simple Future: How old will you be (when you start college)?
–I will be 18 (years old) (when I start college).
Because the verb TO BE is stative (a non-action) verb, we don’t use the continuous tenses when referring to our age in English. Here are some other examples with the perfect tenses, although these questions wouldn’t be that common.
Present Perfect: How long have you been 30?
I have only been 30 for 1 day! My birthday was yesterday.
Past Perfect: How long had you been 16 before you started driving?
I had only been 16 for 1 day because I got my license almost immediately.
Future Perfect: …will have been…
Modals- have to/should: How old do you have to be to drive in the U.S.?
How old should you be to drive in the U.S.?
–You have to be at least 16 years old.
–I think you should be at least 18 to drive in the U.S.
The biggest confusion/error I’ve seen is trying to use the verb “have” rather than “be” when talking about age. We never use “have“, so don’t say, “I have 29 years.” or “Lucy has 29 years.” And when I say never, I mean….never.
You will also hear English speakers using the preposition AT when talking about their age, never WITH. This is most often used when talking about the past, and sometimes for the future, for example:
–At 21 (years old), I had already traveled to 15 countries. [incorrect:
With 21 years, I had already……]
–I started driving at 16 (years old). [incorrect:
I started driving with 16 years.]
–At 35 (years old), I will be a professional singer.
–I will be a millionaire at 40 (years old).
The tense of the main verb will tell us whether we are talking about the past or the future. Notice the past tense verbs (“had already traveled” and “started”) in the first two sentences, and the future tense (“will be”) in the last two.
Using TO TURN
Do you have a birthday coming up? How old will you be turning? I’ll be turning 30 on my next birthday. We use the verb “TO TURN” when we talk about “becoming” a new age in the future. It is okay to use this verb to talk about age in the past; however, you might not hear it as commonly as for the future. I think it’s best to review some examples together, as we did in the first sentence above. In those two sentence examples, we used the future continuous (will + be + verb-ing) so express a future age. We can also use it with the future perfect (will + have + past participle) to say what will have happened at an upcoming time; for example: “Will you have turned 30 by the time you start your company?” The answers for this could be, “Yes, I will have turned 30….” or “No, I will not have turned 30…”
When talking about the past tense, we might use the past perfect (had + past participle), “Had you turned 21 when you lived abroad?” Possible answers: “Yes I had turned 21..” or “No, I hadn’t turned 21…” We could even use the simple past, “Did you turn 12 yesterday?” — “Yes, I turned 12!” “No, I turned 13!”
Using ADJECTIVE CLAUSES
Adjective clauses are dependent clauses that give information to a noun. If we are describing someone’s age, then we can use an adjective clause to do this because we are giving description to a person (a noun). We use this structure very often in writing, or when using age as a description of someone in a story, rather than for introductions or small talk. Because of this, we will most often use the 3rd person singular form and not “you” or “I”. To understand this a little better, let’s look at some examples…
–I taught a student last week who was 10 (years old).
“who was 10” is the adjective clause. We have the relative pronoun “who”, the subject “was” (NOTE: it’s the verb TO BE), and the age “10”.
–People that are under 25 have to pay more for car insurance.
“that are under 25” is the adjective clause. We have the relative pronoun “that”, the subject “are” (NOTE: it’s the verb TO BE), and the age “under 25”.
A quick note about adjective clauses: they must begin with a relative pronoun and when talking about people, we can use either “who” or “that”. There are several other rules, some exceptions and other important information, but this is not the post for that.
Using age as ADJECTIVES & NOUNS
We just mentioned that we can use an adjective clause to talk about ages in English, but did you know we can also use the number as an adjective? Consider this example, “My 7-year-old cousin speaks 4 languages“. In this example I am talking about my cousin (noun), and using her age as the main description (adjective). When using an age as an adjective BEFORE a noun, you need to remember two very important things: #1) never put an “s” on the word ‘year’. We never make adjectives plural, and this is no exception. #2) we need to use the hyphens/dashes – .
You can also use age as an adjective following a linking verb (to be) at the end of a sentence, when describing the subject. In this case, you need to put an “s” on the word ‘year’ and you do not need hyphens: My cousin is 7 years old.
Finally, we can use the age as a noun and the subject of a sentence. In this structure, the same 2 important rules from above apply as well (no “s” and you need a hyphen). What explanation is complete without an example? 3-year-olds are often a handful. The subject of this sentence is “3-year-olds” meaning “kids who are 3 years old”.
Let’s review what we’ve learned with a short quiz. I promise it’s not as bad as the ones from school…
First, read the questions and review the post if you are not sure. Then, check your answers below.
- What relative pronouns are used when talking about age with adjective clauses?
- TRUE or FALSE: I can use “with” when I talk about ages.
- When do I need to use a hyphen with ages?
- TRUE or FALSE: I need to use an “s” when the age is an adjective before the noun
- When can I use “have” when talking about ages?
How did you do? Let us know in the comment section below! I also encourage you try writing your own sentence examples in the comment section below. Try to write your own sentence for each of the ways described above, I’ll be sure to help you if you make a mistake.
Happy Studying! ♥
2. FALSE (never use “with” — instead, use “at”)
3. when age is a noun, or an adjective before a noun
4. FALSE (never put an “s” on ‘year’ when it’s an adjective before a noun
5. NEVER, never use “have” when talking about ages
BONUS: Idioms about age
Ways to say someone is old
-(One) is no spring chicken: Dylan is no spring chicken, he’s turning 50 this month!
–to be older than dirt: I am older than dirt!
–not as young as (one) used to be: When Oliver gets out of his chair, his bones crack and he’s slower than normal. He groaned out loud, “I am not as young as I used to be.”
–to be over the hill: (usually implies the 40th birthday) Emma is turning 40 this year, she’s over the hill
–to be young at heart– to have a youthful spirit and attitude, no matter what the age may be: Even though my grandma seems old, she’s young at heart.
Learn more idioms here, on English idioms of the week!