Commonly Confused Prepositions: Above, Over, Below & Under

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.

Examples:

  • 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.

Examples:

  • 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.”

Examples:

  • 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.

Examples:

  • 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)

Related Resources

Try our Prepositions of Place lesson in the Grammar Practice Worksheets section. If you teach young learners, try Sprout English‘s free worksheet: Where’s the Puppy? Preposition Practice for IN and ON

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

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32 comments

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  1. trakdash@rediffmail.com'

    Ashok Kumar dash says:

    Jun 20, 2018 at 3:31 am

    The aeroplane is fying over. Is it right? If yes justify the statement.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 20, 2018 at 12:41 pm

      Hi Ashok, you’re right to use “over” with an airplane, but you need to say what it’s flying over. You need a noun to follow the preposition. (E.g., “The airplane is flying over the building.” or “The airplane is flying over the field.”)

      Reply

  2. quachkhaivinh1612@gmail.com'

    Frank says:

    May 08, 2018 at 5:25 am

    Thank you so much. I found you lesson very useful. But i am little bit confused of how to use “under” and “below” because i saw an example with below like this “Arianne lives in the department below me” and below in this sentence definitely doesn’t mean “less than” as you mentioned above.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 08, 2018 at 12:29 pm

      Hi Frank, thanks for your comment. Remember that the guidelines in the post above are common usage points that will help students remember the main differences, but overall, these prepositions are interchangeable. In your example, both “below” and “under” are possible, but for buildings we generally use “above” and “below” for floors/levels.

      The post above mentions that if the meaning is “less than,” use “below” and not “under.” That’s one trick students can easily remember. But if the meaning is “underneath,” both “under” and “below” are possible, with “under” being slightly more common. The best usage sometimes depends on the situation/case, though (like “below” for buildings), so keep practicing asking these kinds of questions! :)

      Reply

  3. kerry0506@gmail.com'

    Wenmin Liang says:

    May 01, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    I saw one example:
    “she hid above.” with a picture that a girl is standing on the table with a cover. I am confused because there is a touching between this girl and the table. So why “above” Thank You !

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      May 02, 2018 at 12:48 pm

      Hi Wenmin,

      That is confusing. It would be much better to say “She hid on the table (under a blanket).” “On” implies she is touching the table. I guess they were using “above” just to contrast it with “under,” which is where you’d normally expect someone to hide. But I don’t think “above” is a great choice because you’d naturally think she wasn’t touching the table (e.g., she was on a shelf above the table). Sometimes textbooks don’t use the best examples!

      Reply

      • kerry0506@gmail.com'

        Wenmin says:

        May 03, 2018 at 12:16 pm

        I appreciated your answer. Thank you Tanya!

        Reply

  4. awadhproperties99@gmail.com'

    Akash says:

    Feb 19, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Hi,

    Thanks for explaining the difference between “Below” and “Under”
    Can I say,
    I am sitting below the tree?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 20, 2018 at 3:58 pm

      Great question, Akash! While “below the tree” and “under the tree” have the same meaning and both are technically correct, “under the tree” is the more common way to say this. Some other common expressions that use “under” include: under an umbrella, under the stars, under the sky, and under a roof. Remember that, in general, “under” is more common than “below” as a preposition of place.

      Reply

  5. lucknowwriters@gmail.com'

    Arpit says:

    Feb 19, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Hi,
    Thank You for giving us such an easy tutorial.
    I was really confused above where to use “Above” and “Over”.
    But, now I am clear with the whole concept.

    Thank You

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Feb 20, 2018 at 3:58 pm

      I’m happy to hear that, Arpit! Thanks.

      Reply

  6. www.deepakneeteshram@gamil.com'

    Deepak thakur says:

    Feb 12, 2018 at 3:49 am

    I am really confused among that it and this ..
    so please tell me where is use that and where is use it and this

    Reply

  7. nadeemahmad3751@gmail.com'

    Nadeem Ahmad says:

    Jan 30, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    Excellent.There is a lot to learn from this article.Thanks a lot.

    Reply

  8. anzaralam832@gmail.com'

    Anzar says:

    Jan 15, 2018 at 9:05 am

    please differ the fan is over the table or above the table.

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jan 15, 2018 at 12:18 pm

      Hi Anzar,

      For a stationary object (an object that doesn’t move), both over and above are possible. You could say:

      The fan is over the table. √
      The fan is above the table. √

      If there is a crossing movement, over is much more common, so it’s always a good idea to remember the “above = no movement/over = movement” rule.

      The dog jumped over the table. (It jumped from one side to another.)
      The dog jumped above the table. (It was on the table and jumped straight up.)

      Reply

      • russellmohammad0@gmail.com'

        Russell says:

        Feb 21, 2018 at 2:59 am

        What if I say ” The dog jumped on the table “

        Reply

        • Tanya Trusler says:

          Feb 21, 2018 at 11:36 am

          You can say that, but just be aware that “on” and “over” have different meanings. “The dog jumped on the table” means the dog landed on the table. “The dog jumped over the table” means the dog didn’t land on the table—it landed on the floor (on the other side of the table).

          Reply

    • vinayrtukul@gmail.com'

      Vinay Kulshreshtha, RTU, Kota says:

      Jan 20, 2018 at 5:21 am

      The way you explained the difference between the prepositions, is realy remarkable and very natural to teach our children. Normally I have seen many highly qualified people, making these types of minor mistakes, which is noticed by the persons who knows English language. So, I really appreciate such exercises to be discussed. I may also be somewhere wrong because I am not so much qualified. I would appreciate, if mistakes are brought to my notice in this paragraph.

      Reply

      • Tanya Trusler says:

        Jan 22, 2018 at 6:23 pm

        Thank you for your thoughtful words, Vinay! Here are a couple of things to watch:
        1st sentence: realy > really
        2nd sentence: persons who knows > people who know
        Last sentence: brought to my notice > brought to my attention

        Reply

  9. haquemozammel2013@gmail.com'

    Mozammel Haque says:

    Nov 30, 2017 at 10:34 am

    The cat sat under the table /the cat sat below the table – which one is more correct?

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Nov 30, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Hi Mozammel,

      “Under” is usually the more natural preposition with furniture. “The cat sat under the table” sounds best.

      Reply

    • vinayrtukul@gmail.com'

      Vinay says:

      Jan 20, 2018 at 5:17 am

      Why do we say bird is sitting in the tree, rather than on the tree. Can you explain pleaes.

      Reply

      • Tanya Trusler says:

        Jan 22, 2018 at 6:19 pm

        Hi Vinay,

        Good question. Sometimes it’s tricky. When it comes to “in” and “on,” try to picture if the place is “surrounding” the noun. For example, we say “The bird is sitting in the tree” because the tree surrounds the bird (all the branches and leaves). But if we’re only looking at one branch, we can say “The bird is sitting on a branch” because the branch isn’t surrounding the bird, it’s underneath the bird.

        Similarly, we say “in a car” (the structure of the car is small and surrounding you) but “on a bus” (a bigger structure isn’t surrounding you as much), and “on a couch” (bigger seating area) but “in a chair” (the smaller armchair kind of surrounds you). Hope that helps!

        Reply

  10. raheel.ed16@iba-suk.edu.pk'

    Raheel Ahmed says:

    Jul 02, 2017 at 5:30 am

    Excellent explanations

    Reply

  11. addoquayelinda123@gmail.com'

    linfa says:

    Jun 15, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Wow, such simple illustrations. My children are going to enjoy the lesson today. Thanks

    Reply

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Jun 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm

      Thank you, Linfa! I hope they enjoy it.

      Reply

  12. ngm3mondal@gmail.com'

    Nani Gopal Mandal says:

    May 10, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Very clear explanation about the topics. I would like to know more about it. Where can I get it ?

    Reply

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