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This should should be a simple question, but after reviewing other responses I still can't seem to get it working. I've simplified my example to the following:

\begin{tabular}{p{.5in} l }
  \begin{tabular}{p{.5in}  }
    very long first column that spans multiple row.s
  \end{tabular}
 & 
  \begin{tabular}{p{.5in}  }
    2nd column
  \end{tabular}
\end{tabular}

I simply want to get the text in both columns to be vertically aligned to the top. Unfortuantely Try as I might, currently the 2nd column is always vertically centered in the table.

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Do you have a reason for nesting your tabular environments? If you remove the inner tabular environments, the cell contents are aligned at the top. To make a cell span several rows, you would usually use \multirow from the multirow package. –  Jake Aug 3 '11 at 1:07
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2 Answers

Use t (for top) in the optional argument of tabular:

\documentclass{article}
\usepackage{array}

\begin{document}

\begin{tabular}{p{.5in} l }
  \begin{tabular}[t]{p{.5in}  }
    very long first column that spans multiple row.s
  \end{tabular}
 & 
  \begin{tabular}[t]{p{.5in}  }
    2nd column
  \end{tabular}
\end{tabular}

\end{document}
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why do you embed a tabular in a tabular?

\documentclass{book}
\begin{document}
\begin{tabular}{p{.5in}p{.5in}}
\raggedright very long first column that spans multiple rows& 
\raggedright 2nd column
\end{tabular}
\end{document}
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