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I was checking a grammar exercise created by a colleague and a question arose about the function of "above" in the following sentence:

If you have questions, you can look at my notes above.

She feels it's an adjective, and I feel it is a preposition. My reasoning is that if one removes "at my notes" "above" is giving further information in the way a preposition does.

So, which is it; a preposition or an adjective?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 21:23

2 Answers 2

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It can be used as either a prepositon or an adjective.

Above used as a preposition takes the following form: noun + verb + preposition + noun (e.g., ceilings are above floors, the plane flew above the clouds, I reached above me, etc.). This is its most common usage.

Above can appear, as an adjective, in the prepostitional phrase of an imperitave and tends to modify written text: command + prepositional phrase (e.g., meet at the above address, refer to the above text, call the above phone number, etc.). In each of these cases, however, it is implied that the noun being modified by the adjective, above, (i.e., address, text, phone number) is written above wherever the subject of the imperitave (i.e., the reader) reads the command. In other words, above is never non-prepositional.

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Adverb versus Preposition

It is definitely not a preposition. A rule of thumb to tell and adverb from a preposition, is that the preposition requires an object:

Preposition:

I walked down the hill.

Adverb:

I walked down.

Here is a case where above would be a preposition:

If you have questions, you can look at my notes above this sentence.

If you omit the object ("this sentence"), then that's an adverb.

Note that these are basically the same words. They are used in two different ways.

Preposition versus Adjective

As for thinking that it's an adjective, that's another matter. A case where you can validly argue for the adjective against the adverb is this:

If you have questions, you can look at my above notes.

In English, the attributive adjective generally goes before the name, so it makes sense. The conventional answer is therefore that it is an adjective (though one could also argue for an adverb, or rather that it is an adverb that came to be used an adjective). Note, however, that it this adjective use is rather formal language.

But if you put the word "above" after the noun, the perception is definitely that of an adverb -- an answer to the question "where".

  • If you have questions, you can look at my notes.

  • Where?

  • Above

Again, if one really wanted to look at "above" as a postpositive adjective, perhaps one could build a case.

Arbitration

There is another consideration: every child could understand (albeit with some effort) that "above" can be either a preposition or an adverb. Throw in the fact that it could also be an adjective, and that might be too much!

So (except for the rarer case when "above" is before the noun) why not settle for the simple answer and say it's an adverb when it's not a preposition? In my humble opinion, grammar has to be as simple as possible, so as to be taught to the largest number of people. Between two ways of explaining something to others, one should go for the simplest and most intuitive.

I am not saying anything special here, since that seems to be the conventional position of dictionaries. Indeed, MacMillan is explicit about these three categories (preposition, adverb and adjective), specifically for the case at hand.

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  • How could she be right when she feels it is an adjective, not an adverb. Please read the question. Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 23:01
  • "My above notes" is definitely an adjective; there's no question about it. See dictionary. An adverb can never come between the determiner and the noun. ("Look at the closely notes"??? "Look at the up sky"???) And I'd say it's an adjective in the OP's construction as well. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 16:38
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  • I beg to differ about this. Grammar books also refer to words, and dictionaries also refer to grammar rules. It depends on where one's entry point is. If the question is about grammar concepts or rules, one would start from the grammar book; if the question is about a word, the logical starting point is the dictionary. This is particularly true for the English language, where there are few inflections and the same word can thus be easily used as a member of several classes (adjective, adverb, verb, ...).
    – fralau
    Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 8:32

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