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Commonly Confused Prepositions: Above, Over, Below & Under

by | February 25, 2016

Tanya commonly confused prepositions above over below under banner

Some English prepositions have such similar meanings. Are words like above and over always interchangeable, or are there usage differences? Our new Grammar Practice Worksheets lesson on Prepositions of Place got us thinking about commonly confused prepositions such as above/over and below/under. Try presenting these prepositions together and explaining the most common usage to your English language learners.

Above & Over

These prepositions can be interchangeable, but the most common usage is this:

Use above when there is no movement.

Use over when there is movement.

Examples

  • There is a painting above the sofa. (no movement)
  • The chandelier hangs above the dining room table. (no movement)
  • The plane flew over the building. (movement)
  • The dog jumped over the log. (movement)

On

What about on? Use on when two nouns are touching (when a noun is directly on top of another noun). Use above when there is no touching.

Examples

  • There is a book on the desk. (touching)
  • The cat is sleeping on the bed. (touching)
  • The sun is directly above our heads. (no touching)
  • I see blue sky through the skylight above me. (no touching)

Below & Under

These prepositions are even more interchangeable than above and over. The important thing to remember is this:

Use under in most cases as it is much more common than 'below.'

Use below when the meaning is 'less than.'

Examples

  • My shoes are under the bed. (no movement, no touching)
  • The saucer is under the cup. (touching)
  • The boat passed under the bridge. (movement)
  • It is 18 degrees below zero. (less than)

What about beneath and underneath? These prepositions are also interchangeable with under and below, though I tell my students that they are a little more formal and that under is the best choice.

Examples

  • We sat under the tree. (most common/best choice)
  • We sat below the tree. (less common)
  • We sat underneath the tree. (a little more formal)
  • We sat beneath the tree. (more formal)

Related Resources

Try our Prepositions of Place lesson in the Grammar Practice Worksheets section!

For more examples and exceptions, there is a great article on under and below in Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary.

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Comments (44)

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Nani Gopal Mandal(Guest)

Very clear explanation about the topics. I would like to know more about it. Where can I get it ?

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Nani,

If you're a subscriber, we have some preposition lessons and flashcards for you.

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linfa (Guest)

Wow, such simple illustrations. My children are going to enjoy the lesson today. Thanks

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thank you, Linfa! I hope they enjoy it.

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Raheel Ahmed(Guest)

Excellent explanations

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks a lot!

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Mozammel Haque(Guest)

The cat sat under the table /the cat sat below the table - which one is more correct?

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Mozammel,

'Under' is usually the more natural preposition with furniture. 'The cat sat under the table' sounds best.

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Anzar (Guest)

please differ the fan is over the table or above the table.

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Anzar,

For a stationary object (an object that doesn't move), both over and above are possible. You could say:

The fan is over the table. √
The fan is above the table. √

If there is a crossing movement, over is much more common, so it's always a good idea to remember the 'above = no movement/over = movement' rule.

The dog jumped over the table. (It jumped from one side to another.)
The dog jumped above the table. (It was on the table and jumped straight up.)

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Nadeem Ahmad(Guest)

Excellent.There is a lot to learn from this article.Thanks a lot.

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Nadeem!

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Deepak thakur(Guest)

I am really confused among that it and this ..
so please tell me where is use that and where is use it and this

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Deepak,

Great idea for a blog post! I'll blog about 'that' and 'this' soon. In the meantime, here are a couple of posts on 'empty' subjects (like 'it' in 'It's a nice day') that might help you:
It's & Its: https://blog.esllibrary.com/2014/08/21/teaching-tips-on-its-and-its/
There Is & There Are: https://blog.esllibrary.com/2017/07/26/there-is-there-are/

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Arpit (Guest)

Hi,
Thank You for giving us such an easy tutorial.
I was really confused above where to use 'Above' and 'Over'.
But, now I am clear with the whole concept.

Thank You

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I'm happy to hear that, Arpit! Thanks.

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Akash (Guest)

Hi,

Thanks for explaining the difference between 'Below' and 'Under'
Can I say,
I am sitting below the tree?

Reply to Comment
Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Great question, Akash! While 'below the tree' and 'under the tree' have the same meaning and both are technically correct, 'under the tree' is the more common way to say this. Some other common expressions that use 'under' include: under an umbrella, under the stars, under the sky, and under a roof. Remember that, in general, 'under' is more common than 'below' as a preposition of place.

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Wenmin Liang(Guest)

I saw one example:
'she hid above.' with a picture that a girl is standing on the table with a cover. I am confused because there is a touching between this girl and the table. So why 'above' Thank You !

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Bw tanya

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Wenmin,

That is confusing. It would be much better to say 'She hid on the table (under a blanket).' 'On' implies she is touching the table. I guess they were using 'above' just to contrast it with 'under,' which is where you'd normally expect someone to hide. But I don't think 'above' is a great choice because you'd naturally think she wasn't touching the table (e.g., she was on a shelf above the table). Sometimes textbooks don't use the best examples!

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