English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

Look out below!

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” functions as either an adverb (“they bought the house below”) or a preposition (“the basement below the house”).

The way to tell the difference is to look for an object of “below.” If there’s no object present, “below” is an adverb. If an object is expressed, it’s a preposition.

Your first example is not a universally accepted use of “below,” but the second one is fine. Let’s look at them one at a time.

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

So the usual order would be “Click on the link below,” an arrangement in which “below” is an adverb.

However, we can’t say the adjectival use is wrong, since at least one dictionary company accepts it without comment.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) classifies “below” as an adjective when it means “written or discussed lower on the same page or on a following page.”

And M-W‘s big Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) has a nearly identical definition and adds an example: “the below list contains about 500 names.”

But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) doesn’t recognize the use of “below” as an adjective.

American Heritage 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 Oxford English Dictionary agrees. It says “below” is an adverb when used to mean “lower on a written sheet or page; hence, later in a book or writing; at the foot of the page.”

Two of the 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 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 four dictionaries—the OED, M-W Collegiate, Webster’s Third, and American Heritage—would classify “below” as an adverb in usages like “offices on the floor below” … “in the valley below” … “a grade below”… “a temperature of 40 below,” and so on.

In examples like those, “below” may not look like an adverb but it is. It might sometimes help 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 “below” is an adverb and there’s nothing improper about that sentence. It’s grammatically 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 sentences 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 Oxford English Dictionary says this usage is now obsolete or rare.

In case you’re wondering, the adverb first showed up around 1400 and the preposition around 1575, according to OED citations.  

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