English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

Look out below!

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 17, 2020.]

Q: Lately I’ve noticed that people are placing the word “below” in front of a noun or at the head of a sentence. Examples: “Click on the below link” instead of “Click on the link below” and “Below are the fixes” instead of “The fixes are below.” Is this at all proper?

A: Most authorities will tell you that “below” is not properly used as an adjective. So your first example (“the below link”) is not a universally accepted use. But the second (“Below are …”) is fine. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Nearly all standard dictionaries say that “below” functions exclusively as either an adverb (“they bought the apartment below”) or a preposition (“they bought the apartment below ours”). What’s the difference? They classify the word as an adverb if it doesn’t have an object, and as a preposition if it does.

In the sentence “Click on the below link,” the word “below” is an adjective modifying the noun “link.” While “above” is commonly used this way, “below” and “beneath” are not.

The usual order is “Click on the link below,” an arrangement in which “below” is traditionally classified as an adverb.

[Note: As we write in a later post, academic linguists have broken with tradition here. They consider “below” a preposition, whether it has an object (as in “click on the link below the picture”) or not (“click on the link below”). It’s a transitive preposition if it has an object, and intransitive if not. Dictionaries have not yet adopted this view.]

However, we can’t say the adjectival use is wrong. At least one publisher of standard dictionaries accepts it without comment.

Merriam-Webster classifies “below” as an adjective when it premodifies a noun and means “written or discussed lower on the same page or on a following page.” The example given is “the below list.” The more extensive Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a nearly identical definition and example. 

The adjectival usage is also found in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. And it’s similarly defined.

The OED’s earliest example is from an 1822 issue of the Philosophical Magazine: “According to the below observations, the thermometer falls one degree for every ascent of 224 feet.” (Oxford adds, however, that this use of “below” is rare in comparison with the similar use of “above.”)

However, aside from M-W, the standard dictionaries we usually consult do not recognize the use of “below” as an adjective. 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, has no such adjectival usage. It says “below” is an adverb when used, among other things, to indicate “farther down” or “in a later part of a given text: figures quoted below.”

The OED would agree with that classification of “below” as an adverb in the sense of “lower on a written sheet or page; hence, later in a book or writing; at the foot of the page.” Two OED citations for this usage are “Read what’s below” (1784) and “The forms subjoined in the note below” (1863).

The OED says that in cases like these (and this would also apply to the American Heritage example, “figures quoted below”), the adverb has no expressed object. In other words, the sentence doesn’t explicitly say below what.

As we mentioned above, when an object is present, “below” is traditionally classified as a preposition: “figures quoted below the dotted line” … “below zero” … “below par” … “below average,” and so on.

When “below” is used as an adverb, the word it modifies (whether adjective or verb) isn’t always implied.

All 10 standard dictionaries, as well as the OED, would classify “below” as an adverb in examples like “offices on the floor below” … “in the valley below” … “a grade below”… “a temperature of 40 below,” and so on.

We realize that in examples like those, “below” does not look like an adverb. In understanding the dictionaries’ rationale, it sometimes helps to imagine an unstated word like “located” or “positioned” in there somewhere: “the offices on the floor [located] below.”

Now let’s turn to your second example, “Below are the fixes.”

Here again, “below” would traditionally be classified as an adverb. The sentence is parallel to “The fixes are below.” (While we think “are below” at the end of the sentence is more graceful than “Below are” up front, the two versions are grammatically equivalent.)

One last point: the word “below” wasn’t either an adverb or a preposition when it first showed up in English in the 14th century. It was a verb meaning to make low or to humble.

William Langland used the verb in 1377 in Piers Plowman, his Middle English allegorical poem, but the OED says this usage is now obsolete or rare.

In case you’re wondering, the adverb first showed up around 1400 and the preposition around 1565, according to OED citations.  

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