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I encountered this sentence last night

"Mr. Shin looked up to her from under his head lamp and replied with a simple but empthatic "yes" "

I know, if it were the other way around, I could use over, as in "he looked at her over the top of his newspaper" but I was wondering if I can use "from on" with the word, look, when I want to say I look down from on something, as in "I looked down at the people from on the skyscraper (or from on top of the skyscraper" ?

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    Why not just from the skyscraper? – Lawrence Jan 21 '18 at 15:12
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    The use of 'on the' implies you are hanging onto, climbing up or rappelling down the exterior of the skyscraper. 'On top of' implies you are literally standing (or clinging) on the very top of the building, more like King Kong in his famous role. – IconDaemon Jan 21 '18 at 15:50
  • @Lawrence: because if I say "I looked down from the skyscraper", this may mean a lot of things; it might be my looking down from the window of the third floor, my looking down from the first floor, and so on, but I want to exclusively give the meaning of looking down, not from any floor,but from on the top of the building, as IconDaemon put it, like the King Kong. Saying only from the skyscraper does not necessarily give this meaning, does it? – Nostradamus Jan 21 '18 at 16:16
  • @IconDaemon: yes that is the meaning I want to give. Then is it safe to say there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence "After indulging in an exultant laughter until my chest hurt, l looked down from on the skyscraper, thinking of how to get back into the building" – Nostradamus Jan 21 '18 at 16:22
  • In that case, consider from the top of the skyscraper. – Lawrence Jan 21 '18 at 17:03
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"I looked down at the people from on top of the skyscraper [or mountain peak, etc.]"

constitutes acceptable American English usage, but you have to be careful as your other example,

*"I looked down at the people from on the skyscraper"

is not idiomatic.

Perhaps the most common use of "from on" in English is "from on high." To assess the accuracy of this assumption, I ran a Google Ngram here, which shows that published usage of "from on" and "from on high" follow each other quite closely over the past 400 years. I specifically chose the year 1600 as the starting point due to the original publication of the King James Bible in 1611, with many republications of it following rapidly thereafter, (seemingly) peaking in the mid-17th century. These "new" English translations of the Bible, including the "Geneva" Bible of 1560 (among others), greatly influenced usage by countless English speaking writers, including Shakespeare.

Of course there are and have been many other uses of "from on" and "from on high" that have nothing to do with the Bible, including your example of "looking down from on top of a skyscraper," but the parallel "ups and downs" in the Ngram of the two phrases over the last four centuries, for whatever reasons, is still interesting.

Although I am not a Christian, when I was at university 40+ years ago, one of my favorite professors claimed that to be literate in English required at least having read the most important books of the King James Bible and the major plays of Shakespeare. She said that without knowledge of both, a reader will fail to understand thousands of allusions in English literature from the 16th century to the present day.

  • Thanks for answering. I am not a professor myself but I have to agree with your professor. English is a very rich puzzle that has a lot of subtleties, and in my case this is what most conduces to my desire to learn it to the greatest extent possible. I will definitely read both the bible and shakespeare after I have reached a certain degree of proficiency, but for now there are a lot of unknown words and nuances to me in English that I have to make mental pictures of. I saw that usage and have actually always wondered if in "from on high" high is used as a noun. It is a noun, isn't it? – Nostradamus Jan 21 '18 at 18:32
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    You are on the right track. In the prepositional phrase, "from on high," "on high" refers to a place (whether actual or figurative) and therefore serves as a noun. For instance, "He spoke to me by phone from his home in Seattle." In each case it (the noun phrase) answers the question, "from where?" Your English is very good, and I admire your diligence in mastering such a difficult language. – Mark Hubbard Jan 21 '18 at 21:43

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