What is the difference between pass on and pass down?

E.g. "Local knowledge is passed on orally or within practice from one generation to the next." or "Local knowledge is passed down orally or within practice from one generation to the next."

Is it possible to use it as an adjective: e.g. passed on knowledge/passed down knowledge. If this is possible, would you write it with hyphen or without (passed on or passed-on)

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    The main distinction I make, though subtle, is that "pass on" implies a transference that could take place between any two people in any direction (friend to friend, boss to employee, random passer-by to old lady in the street etc.), whereas "pass down" implies a closer familial connection between the passer and the passee, with the transference being solely downwards in the hierarchy. (father to son, for example, but not son to father). If I were using it as an adjective, I'd hyphenate it as the "on" is part of "passed" and doesn't solely describe the knowledge. So "passed-on knowledge". Feb 29, 2016 at 11:26

1 Answer 1


I would say that to "pass on" knowledge implies that the type of knowledge is more like general information with a relatively short-term validity and simply given to the next person.

"Passing down" knowledge implies knowledge that is is of a much longer-term significance and is being passed from someone older to someone considerably younger, with something of an emotional link between the two people concerned. Like father and son, or a craftsman and apprentice.

As an adjective, I would use the hyphen.

  • Yes; the horizontal (equivalent-distribution) metaphor vs the downwards (master-apprentice or elder-youth) metaphor. Feb 29, 2016 at 12:17

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