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.

Not an ESL Library member? Get unlimited access to 700+ lessons and 2000+ flashcards. Subscribe today!

6 comments

Leave a Comment ↓

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

    Raheel Ahmed says:

    Jul 02, 2017 at 5:30 am

    Excellent explanations

    Reply

  2. 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

  3. 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

Leave a Comment