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