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It leads me to the confusion, when it comes to contradicting between some prepositions.

Today, I want to know the distinction between the two similar senses of these prepositions: under, underneath, below and beneath.

Sense No. 1. extending directly below (something else) or extending directly underneath.

The following example sentence suggests that we can use all of the four prepositions mentioned above:

  1. Our bedroom is right under theirs.

    1. Our bedroom is right underneath theirs.

I am not sure wether this sentence 2 can this be like this: underneath theirs, is our bedroom.

  1. Our bedroom is right below theirs.

  2. Our bedroom is right beneath theirs.


Sense No. 2. at a lower level or layer than, or so as to be concealed.

The sentence for this sense:

  1. The tunnel under the crags . . .

  2. The tunnel underneath the crags . . .

  3. The tunnel below the crags . . .

  4. The tunnel beneath the crags . . .

The Oxford Dictionaries site provides the same definitions of these two senses of under, underneath, below, beneath. In terms of these two senses, is there any subtle difference between these four prepositions? Or one is most formal/informal than the rest.


And what about their spelling pattern:

If under is to underneath, but why below is to beneath, rather than belowneath?

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  • 1
    A thread on Myenglishteacher.eu has addressed this exact issue in great detail. Question will therefore be flagged for closure.
    – VTH
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 8:33
  • 2
    @VTH, the link you provided does not answer my question in some, nor that is as same as my question is. In the link, the website says in its first point: "under is used when something is directly under another." but here I want to ask that the OED provides the same definitions of all these prepositions, denoting that they are directly below or under something else.
    – Ahmed
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 8:42
  • 1
    @VTH, Okay, well, going to do that. :)
    – Ahmed
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 9:07
  • 2
    It's not the OED, it's Oxford Dictionaries. The first (extremely exhaustive and detailed) is available only on subscription, the second, its sister-site, is free and available to everyone.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 9:20
  • 2
    Use beneath and underneath in set phrases and idiomatic expressions. For all practical purposes, these are deprecated.
    – Kris
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 12:40

5 Answers 5

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+100

These are four very similar words, and while native English speakers will likely agree on which one to choose in a given context, they would probably find it difficult to say why. The differences are extremely subtle, and there's a degree of overlap.

Rather than presenting standard dictionary definitions, I found that an etymological analysis helped me get a better sense of the usage:

below (adv.)

"in a lower position," early 14c., biloogh, from be- "by, about" + logh, lou, lowe "low" [...] Apparently a variant of earlier a-lowe (influenced by other adverbs in be-; see before), the parallel form to an-high (now on high).

Beneath was the usual word; below was very rare in Middle English and gained currency only in 16c. It is frequent in Shakespeare. As a preposition from 1570s. In nautical use, "off-duty," in contradistinction to "on deck." Meaning "inferior in rank or dignity" is from c. 1600.

According to Fowler, below is the opposite of above and concerns difference of level and suggests comparison of independent things. Under is the opposite of over and is concerned with superposition and subjection and suggests some interrelation.

beneath (adv., prep.)

Old English beneoðan "under, below, in a lower place, further down than," in late Old English "lower in rank, degree, excellence, etc.," from be- "by" + neoðan "below, down, from below," from Proto-Germanic **niþar* "lower, farther down, down" (see nether). Meaning "unworthy of" is attested from 1849 (purists prefer below in this sense). "The be- gave or emphasized the notion of 'where,' excluding that of 'whence' pertaining to the simple niðan" [OED].

under (prep., adv.)

Old English under (prep.) "beneath, among, before, in the presence of, in subjection to, under the rule of, by means of," also, as an adverb, "beneath, below, underneath," expressing position with reference to that which is above, from Proto-Germanic *under- (source also of Old Frisian under, Dutch onder, Old High German untar, German unter, Old Norse undir, Gothic undar), from PIE *ndher- "under" (source also of Sanskrit adhah "below;" Avestan athara- "lower;" Latin infernus "lower," infra "below").

Productive as a prefix in Old English, as in German and Scandinavian (often forming words modeled on Latin ones in sub-). Notion of "inferior in rank, position, etc." was present in Old English. With reference to standards, "less than in age, price, value," etc., late 14c. As an adjective, "lower in position; lower in rank or degree" from 13c. Also

underneath (adv.)

Old English underneoðan, from under + neoðan "below" (see beneath).

This duplication of meanings serves to emphasise an immediacy or directness in the locational relationship. ODO says "Situated directly below (something else)".


So, to very broadly summarise:

  • below is more likely to indicate a simple level in an above/below duality
  • beneath adds a hint of inferiority or lower order
  • under tends to be used in a superposition of related/connected things
  • underneath is like "under" but more immediately or directly so.

Regarding your question about "spelling patterns", this is partly explained above in the etymology. To elaborate on "below" and "beneath": they're each composed of the prefix "be-" (a directional indicator) plus a locational word - "low", or "neath" (related to "nether" - think of the Netherlands = "low country").

be-

word-forming element of verbs and nouns from verbs, with a wide range of meaning: "about, around; thoroughly, completely; to make, cause seem; to provide with; at, on, to, for;" from Old English be- "about, around, on all sides" (the unstressed form of bi "by").


Finally, to demonstrate how subtle and indeed fickle the differences are:

  • that behaviour was beneath him - but we probably wouldn't use "below" and definitely not "under" or "underneath";
  • that performance was below par - or maybe "under par" but definitely not "beneath" or "underneath";
  • she slid the key underneath the mat - "under" would work just as well, but "beneath" would be a bit unusual and we wouldn't use "below";
  • I'm below the age limit - "under" is probably just as common but seems a bit more colloquial, while neither "beneath" nor "underneath" would be used.
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  • I've accepted your detailed, well-defined answer, but can you please add some information about the spelling pattern of these four prepositions. I've asked this in my question, too.
    – Ahmed
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 14:08
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    Thanks Ahmed. I've added a spelling explanation for the two "be-" words; the other two words are already explained in the etymology section. Hope that completes what you're after :-) Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 14:30
  • Some of your statements are incorrect: "beneath adds a hint of inferiority or lower order", That is not true for physical things. You do not make the physical/non-physical distinction.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:10
  • under tends to be used in a superposition of related/connected things that is not true. Under is not about "superposition", which is relevant or a word much used in English. Only people are fickle, never things.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 16:11
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While below and under can be used in the same sentences as beneath and underneath, there is a subtle difference which may be more apparent depending on context.

Under and below denote proximity in two dimensions - in other words: If you were looking at a page with a picture of a table near the top and a picture of an apple closer to the bottom, you could say that the apple is under or below the table. It would be more likely to say that the apple is beneath, or underneath, the table if visual cues indicated that the apple occupied a space (in three dimensions) which the table stood over.

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Although the four words are frequently used interchangeably, somewhat different senses can be made or understood - i.e. the "direct or immediate" position of something as opposed to a more "general" position of something (meaning simply lower than). The prepositions under and below would more commonly be used in a general sense.

  • The ball is on the floor below the table (anywhere on the floor below the table).

  • The ball is on the floor beneath the table (typically understood as directly below the table).

  • The ball is on the floor under the table (generally on the floor under the table).

  • The ball is on the floor underneath the table (positioned directly under the table).


Your final question is interesting. I would have to agree that the preposition 'underneath' does seem to be redundant. Just looking at its old English origin (see the etymology for underneath) - possibly this was for emphasis.

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  • Yes, the prepositional uses.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 13:12
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Underneath, to me, connotes an aspect of being hidden.

"There were old grapes underneath the fridge" (= they were under the fridge but we could not see them/we did not know they were there [initially or at some point in time]); versus

"The linoleum under the fridge needs to be replaced" (= its position is lower than the fridge, but its existence is immediately known to the speaker).

"There were centipedes underneath the large rock we removed" (= the centipedes had been hidden; the speaker had not known they were under the rock until the rock was moved) versus

"The soil below rocks retains its moisture much longer than soil exposed to the sun." (= the speaker is already aware of the soil lower than the rocks; it's merely a statement of physical position).

So for me underneath connotes something usually physical, tangible, that is or was initially unknown or hidden versus under which is more neutral.

Beneath as discussed in earlier entries can for sure give the feeling of something or someone in an inferior position. For example:

"Being seen in that type of establishment is beneath me" (= I consider that establishment not to be equal to my standards).

That more abstract, usually less physical quality, when intentionally used by the speaker/author to describe a physical situation, gives the word a bit more poetic, literary feeling. Also, as with underneath, it can create a feeling of stealth, of intention, of figuratively hiding something as opposed to hiding an object; this feeling is not really connoted as much in under or below.

Consider reading in a story: "The maid had worked for the family for years, obliterating dust from every corner of their mansion. Being tidy, she kept her overcoat on a hook next to the kitchen door and her broom and dustpan in a closet under the back stairs." (= simple position; you could also say beneath the back stairs for alliteration, but it's a closet with a broom, nothing special).

Versus: "The maid knew where the family's skeletons were buried, but, in truth, how well did they know her? She maintained a tidy home and proper demeanor at all times. Little did the family know that she hid her own secrets in the closet beneath the staircase." Here beneath gives a more literary tone; it suggests something potentially physical -- like a note or diary -- but also possibly figurative, non-literal, like secret knowledge, blackmail, or maybe she quietly sobs in that closet during moments of emotional breakdown, and no one's the wiser; etc. -- it plays with the liminality between the physical and the ethereal much better than under does. Also, beneath in the latter context takes on some of the connotation of underneath, namely something hidden: hidden knowledge, hidden resentment, hidden emotions, hidden motives; however, with only two syllables, beneath feels cleaner and more figurative than the clunkier, tri-syllabic underneath, which feels much more descriptive of something physically hidden.

I would say, for example, "he hid the weapon underneath his bed," but "she hid her exasperation beneath a fake smile".

Below to me -- yes, in the above/below binary -- is also a bit stationary.

"You can find the vinegar below the sugar in aisle 3." And:

"Books on the American Revolution sit on the shelf above books on the U.S. Civil War."

Also with above-below, there seems to be an understood or implied relationship. "One shelf is above another. One shelf is below the other."

Under and underneath both feel awkward in this example. Beneath feels like too much -- like someone trying to sound fancier than they need to; I would give small side-eye to hearing "One shelf is beneath another" -- it gives a "no duh" feeling -- like they're trying to say something intelligent that is obvious, whereas above/below does not give me that feeling, it would merely be the speaker indicating where one thing is in relationship to another (e.g., where an object is), on which shelf, plain and simple. Clear and clean.

Under -- in the over/under duality -- under is imbued with a strong sense of motion or movement that words like below generally lack and beneath may or may not lack depending on the context.

Consider:

"One box is below another," but "The child crawled under the table."

Most native speakers would not say "The child crawled below the table." It just sounds weird. More examples:

"The child's ball rolled under the couch," and "The rat ran under the porch." (Most would not say "The rat ran below the porch"). You could also say "The rat ran underneath the porch," really emphasizing the feeling in the listener's or reader's mind that the rat is now hiding under the porch. In this instance you could also say "The rat ran beneath the porch." !!! Why? Because beneath can connote below in a more stationary way (1) in a situation where there's not an already-implied or -understood expected relationship between the objects and/or (2) where pairing the stationary below with a verb of movement ("ran") just feels awkward. Beneath works because of its overlapping meaning of below (lower than) and under (movement while lower than) it can be used with movement.

So movement/motion is at play with over and under. In the above versus over distinction, now we're talking about something we consider to be stationary (at least at that moment) in relative position to something else:

"A flag flew above the castle" (= more stationary) versus "A ball flew over the fence" (was above and crossed the fence in a trajectory).

Over/under denote motion, movement, trajectory; above/below denote a more stationary position of one thing relative to another. Here's another example:

"It was such a loud morning! The police helicopter hovered above our neighbor's house while a jet flew over our neighborhood. We didn't have a moment's peace!" Above gives that feeling of stationary relative position versus over describing something in motion.

These are my thoughts at least. I will say while I'm no linguist, I do spend a lot of time translating text between English and French, and the two languages' prepositions -- how they work, how they pair with verbs, the denotations versus connotions they give -- at times could not seem more different. It can be very difficult to translate something seemingly so obvious in one language into the other and have it feel natural.

Overall, I'd say that in English we have what one might call "stronger" prepositions -- as parts of speech they have lots of independence in terms of pairing them up with different verbs in ways that convey a lot of meaning, whereas French has "weaker" prepositions that can be paired only with certain verbs and which generally carry much less of the meaning of the sentence than their verbs do. In the above examples, the sense of motion and movement versus stationary or the slight connotation of whether the speaker knows of something or if something is initially hidden or unknown carried by the prepositions does not translate easily into French, where the verbs themselves rather than prepositions would hold such meaning.

Anyway, thems my thoughts. Not sure if it helps anyone, but I thought I'd share since I'm a language lover and nerd. Here are my final examples, and please feel free to disagree with me!!!

  1. A river ran below the hillside town.
  2. A river ran beneath the hillside town.
  3. A river ran under the hillside town.
  4. A river ran underneath the hillside town.

In these examples, the image I as the writer have in my head are as follows:

  1. The position of the two things is stationary: the river is topographically lower relative to the higher town. Their relative positions are not changing. It reads like background description, nothing more. End of story.
  2. Same as above; although a slight question arises in my mind: Is the river simply lower than the town that's on the hill side? Or is the river flowing under the ground directly below/beneath the town? Beneath, to me, is a more ambiguous choice. In some contexts, it could leave a question in the reader's or listener's mind.
  3. There is an underground river in the earth on which the town was built and is sitting. And it's a progressive feeling: the river was still in the process of running under this town. The sense of motion in under gives it a progressive, as-yet-unfinished, still-occurring feeling in some contexts. Nothing in this sentence suggests that the townspeople didn't know there was a river beneath their feet. Under reads as neutral movement.
  4. Same as #3, but gives me a connotation of hidden/unknown. Perhaps the townspeople didn't realize there was an underground river beneath their feet. To me I could also imagine a sense of recency with underneath. As in, a river had just started to flow underneath the hillside town, as in an ancient underground riverbed had somehow come back to life, and perhaps that's why no one knew yet. That's just the feeling I get with underneath.
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There are uses of these words for physical things, and non-physical things. There's the rub.

1) Our bedroom is right "under, below, underneath or beneath theirs". All four mean the same thing. And everything here is physical.

There is no real difference. Just as if you tell your carpenter, "I want to build a walk-in closet in my bedroom which is under the attic". the meaning would not change if you use any of those terms.

However, there is this: as an adverb, beneath is used like this:

"What lies beneath is a large cavern." There, "beneath" is an adverb and tells us where the cavern lies. Here, only beneath, underneath,and below can be used. You cannot use "what lies under" here, only "what lies underneath". So, beneath and underneath can be adverbs.

Under cannot be used as an adverb in the sense of the cavern sentence. It is a preposition. And can also be used in the phrasal verb,for example: go under. The business went under last week. meaning: stopped running due to monetary issues. go under is like "drown". And can literally mean to drown, also.

That said, in some contexts, below and under (beneath,underneath) are not 100%.

"My house lay below theirs on a beautiful, flower-covered hillside". In a vertical-type plane, below means located at a lower level on that same plane. Here, we would not say "under". In this sense, none of the others work. And this is the tricky one, too.

There is also the use of beneath referring to a more moral sense: I would not do that,it is beneath me aka below me. On a moral plane,some action or behavior is considered to "beneath one"and colloquially, "below one".

Finally, in a textual context, we say: The explanation is in the paragraph below. (not: below paragraph!) A portion of text can be below or above some other text.

A graphic image can be under(or beneath or underneath) another one though. That is location in space just like the attic above. Beneath and underneath are not preferred here. A painting can be hung on a wall in the same way: under,beneath,underneath or below another painting.

I think I explained this pretty thoroughly. Someone may come up with some detail I missed. Everything is possible.

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