The middle of February is winter here in Washington, DC. I walked outside this morning and the temperature was below freezing! And I made the mistake of wearing light clothing. So I went back in the house and put on a sweater under my coat.
The words “under” and “below” are close in meaning. They are also similar to the words “beneath” and “underneath.” All of them can act as prepositions or adverbs. I will have more on that shortly.
So, if all four words are similar, how do we know which word to use? In our program today, we will answer that.
First, I have some good news: The word “under” is the most widely used of the four words and can often replace the others. If you are ever unsure which one to use, choose “under.”
A lower place: under, below, beneath, underneath
Now let’s begin.
The words “under,” “below,” “beneath” and “underneath” can all mean “in a lower place or position and sometimes covered by something else.”
“Under” is the most used of the three in everyday speech when talking about a lower physical position, like this:
We sat under the stars and listened to the night sounds.
Keeping the boxes under the bed helps to save space.
“Beneath” differs here only in that it is more formal and less common in spoken English. But, you could use it for those two examples.
“Underneath” is often used to say that something is under and covered by something else, so you could use it for the boxes example.
You could also use “below,” but we normally use this word for things of a similar grouping. Listen to the examples:
I hung the new family photo below the old one.
Please carefully read and sign the below document.
In the first example, the photos are on the same wall; in the second, the document is part of an email or group of papers.
Three of the words – “under” “below” and “beneath” – can also be used when identifying someone of a lower rank or with less power than someone else. Here is an example:
In the U.S. army, a lieutenant is below a captain.
Covered by: under, beneath, underneath
The words “under” “beneath” and “underneath” can also more specifically mean “covered or hidden by something.” This can refer to something physically covered by another thing. Or, it can refer to hidden personal qualities.
Listen to someone use the first meaning:
I’m wearing a black sweater underneath this coat.
Note that the word “underneath” is a preposition. It has an indirect object: this coat.
And, now the second:
Her personality seems cold but she’s really warm underneath.
Note that the word “underneath” comes at the end of the sentence – the most common placement when our four words today act as adverbs.
Not worthy of: below, beneath
Next, “below” and “beneath” can refer to people or things that are unworthy in some way or of a lower social ranking.
Here is how someone might use the words:
He refuses to take a job that he sees as beneath him.
Some people think she married below her family.
This meaning is negative, however. So exercise care when using it.
Lower in number: under, below
Another meaning for “under” and “below” relates to measurement. It means “lower than in age, number or level.”
The word “under” is common in reference to age:
It is unlawful to buy cigarettes if you are under 21 years of age.
In this example, the word “under” is a preposition. It has an indirect object: 21 years of age.
Now here it is again but serving an adverb:
It is unlawful to buy cigarettes if you are 21 years of age or under.
Now, onto measurements.
We usually use “below” when discussing such things as height and temperature. Have a listen:
Temperatures in the Midwest fell below zero last week.
A large part of New Orleans is at or below sea level.
More about ‘under’
I want to quickly tell you two more meanings of the word “under” since it’s such a common word with a lot of meanings.
It can mean “guided by or managed by,” as in this:
The restaurant will be under new management starting in March.
It can also mean “in a condition or state,” as in this:
The shopping center is under construction until next year.
Used as a prefix
“Under” can also be used as a prefix – a group of letters added at the beginning of a word to change its meaning.
As such, it can mean “below” or “less than an expected or correct amount” and can be an adjective or a verb. Listen to the first sentence, which uses an adjective, and the second, which uses a verb:
I cannot permit you to enter this club. You’re underage.
Oh no! They undercooked the chicken. I can’t eat it now.
And, lastly, “under” is also used in common English expressions, such as:
under the weather
under the law
under arrest and
under your breath
There are many and you don’t need to memorize them. But keep in mind that expressions often cannot be understood from the meanings of their separate words.
And now, be sure to do the practice below.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Choose the best answer for each sentence. Some sentences have more than one possible answer. Write your answers in the comments section.
- I do not want to engage in small disagreements. Such behavior is _______ me.
- In school systems, teachers are _______administrators.
- A cat ran _______ the car this morning and has been hiding there for hours.
- The temperatures in summer here usually do not fall _______ 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
- I have a good friend who lives ________ me in my apartment building.
- This game is suited for children ages 10 and _________.
- The university’s English program is ________ new supervision.
Words in This Story
sweater – n. a warm usually knitted piece of clothing for the upper part of your body
formal – adj. suitable for serious or official speech and writing
rank – n. a position in a society, organization or group
refer to – v. to have a direct connection or relationship to something
indirect object – n. a noun phrase referring to someone or something that is affected by the action of a verb
negative – adj. expressing dislike or disapproval
construction – n. the act or process of building something
club – n. a business that provides entertainment, such as music or a show, and that usually serves food and alcohol
practice – v. the activity of doing something again and again in order to become better at it