Q: Merriam-Webster describes “below” as an adverb in these two examples: “gazed at the water below” and “voices from the apartment below.” My understanding is that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. But “below” here is modifying two nouns, “water” and “apartment.” So what am I missing?
A: You raise a very good question. As it happens, linguists have asked themselves the same thing, and in the last few decades they’ve abandoned the traditional thinking about the status of “below” and similar words that express spatial relationships.
Traditionally, “below” has been classified as either a preposition or an adverb. It’s a preposition if an object follows, as in “the water below the bridge” and “the apartment below ours.” It’s an adverb if it doesn’t have an object, as in “the water below” and “the apartment below.” As far as we can tell, that’s been the thinking among grammarians since the late 18th century.
But as we’ll explain later, linguists now regard “below” solely as a preposition, a view reflected in recent comprehensive grammar books but not yet recognized in popular grammars and standard dictionaries.
Of course, for all practical purposes the word hasn’t changed, either in its meaning or in the way it’s used. In the scholarly comprehensive grammars, the word has merely shifted in some cases from one lexical category (adverb) to another (preposition).
Standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up to this new way of thinking about “below.” The 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult say it can be either an adverb or a preposition in constructions like those above.
Cambridge, for example, calls it a preposition in “below the picture” but an adverb in “the apartment below.” The dictionary adds: “When the adverb below is used to modify a noun, it follows the noun.” (We know what you’re thinking: An adverb modifying a noun? Stay tuned.)
Despite the differing labels, the adverb and the preposition have virtually the same meaning. By and large, the standard dictionaries that define them say the adverb means “in or to a lower position” or “beneath,” while the preposition means “lower than” or “beneath.”
And in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, the broad definitions for the adverb and the preposition are identical: “Expressing position in or movement to a lower place.”
As we mentioned above, this view of “below” and words like it has a long history. Some similar words of this kind, prepositions that have traditionally been called adverbs when used without an object, include these:
“aboard,” “about,” “above,” “across,” “after,” “against,” “ahead,” “along,” “around,” “before,” “behind,” “below,” “beneath,” “besides,” “between,” “beyond,” “by,” “down,” “for,” “in,” “inside,” “near,” “off,” “on,” “opposite,” “out,” “outside,” “over,” “past,” “round,” “since,” “through,” “throughout,” “to,” “under,” “underneath,” “up,” “within,” “without.”
For example, Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795), says that in some instances a preposition “becomes an adverb merely by its application.” The word “since,” he says, is a preposition in “I have not seen him since that time” and an adverb in “Our friendship commenced long since.”
Murray also says, “The prepositions after, before, above, beneath, and several others, sometimes appear to be adverbs, and may be so considered,” giving as an example “He died not long before.” But when a complement follows, he writes, the word is a preposition, as in “He died not long before that time.”
A generation later, the philosopher John Fearn echoed Murray, referring to “the known Principle” that prepositions at the end of a sentence “become Adverbs by Position.”
Fearn also distinguishes between prepositions that require an object (like “with” and “from”) and those that don’t (like “through”). Those in the second group, he says, are “prepositional adverbs” when they’re used without an object (as in “He went through”).
(From Fearn’s Anti-Tooke: Or an Analysis of the Principles and Structure of Language, Vol. II, 1827, an extended argument against the language theories of John Horne Tooke.)
As we said above, the traditional view persists in standard dictionaries but is no longer found in up-to-date comprehensive grammar. Thinking began to change in the late 1960s, when some academic linguists began questioning the “adverb” label and widening the definition of “preposition.”
In the early ’90s, the linguist Ronald W. Langacker gave four examples of “below” as a preposition—“the valley below; the valley below the cliff; A bird flew below; A bird flew below the cliff.” (From “Prepositions as Grammatical(izing) Elements,” published in the journal Leuvense Bijdragen, 1992.)
Note that in those examples “below” is classified as a preposition (1) whether it’s used alone or with a complement, and (2) whether it follows a noun or a verb—thus resembling an adjective in one case (“valley below”) and an adverb in the other (“flew below”).
Most linguists today would agree with that interpretation: “below” and words like it are prepositions. Used with a complement, they’re said to be “transitive prepositions”; used without one, they’re “intransitive prepositions.”
The newer interpretation has only gradually made its way into major books on English grammar.
For example, the old view persisted at least through the publication in 1985 of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al. It uses the terms “postmodifying adverb” and “prepositional adverb” for “below” and similar words in constructions like these.
A “postmodifying adverb,” according to the Comprehensive Grammar, is identical to a preposition except that it has no complement and modifies a preceding noun. Examples given include “the sentence below” … “the way ahead” … “the people behind.”
A “prepositional adverb,” the book says, is identical to a preposition but has no complement and modifies a verb. Examples include “She stayed in” … “A car drove past.”
The word is a preposition, according to Quirk, only if a complement is present (and regardless of what it seems to modify). Examples include “below the picture” … “She stayed in the house” … “A car drove past the door.”
The Comprehensive Grammar doesn’t use the words “transitive” and “intransitive” for prepositions, but it comes close: “The relation between prepositional adverbs and prepositional phrases may be compared to that between intransitive and transitive uses of certain verbs.”
The next exhaustive grammar book to come along, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), does use those terms. In this book, words that Quirk had previously classified as either postmodifying adverbs or prepositional adverbs are newly categorized as prepositions. The Cambridge Grammar uses “transitive” for prepositions that have a complement, “intransitive” for those that don’t—and it’s the first important English grammar to do so.
The book calls “in” and “since” intransitive prepositions here: “He brought the chair in” … “I haven’t seen her since.” And it calls them transitive prepositions here: “He put it in the box” … “I haven’t seen her since the war.”
The authors of the Cambridge Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, don’t discuss “below” at length, but they do say that it “belongs only to the preposition category.” It’s also included among a list of prepositions that are used with or without a complement, and these examples show it without one: “the discussion below” … “the room below.”
Huddleston and Pullum essentially redraw the boundary between prepositions and adverbs, defining prepositions more broadly than “traditional grammars of English.” In this, they say, they’re “following much work in modern linguistics.” And they give two chief reasons why they reject the traditional view and reclassify words like “below” as prepositions.
(1) The traditional view “does not allow for a preposition without a complement.” The Cambridge Grammar argues that the presence or absence of a complement has no bearing on the classification. So “the traditional definition of prepositions,” one that says they require a complement, is “unwarranted.”
The book makes an important point about these newly recognized prepositions. Their ability to stand alone, without a complement, “is not a property found just occasionally with one or two prepositions, or only with marginal items,” the book says. “It is a property found systematically throughout a wide range of the most central and typical prepositions in the language.”
(2) The “adverb” label is inappropriate for words like “below” because they don’t behave like adverbs. In “The basket is outside,” for instance, the word “outside” is traditionally defined as an adverb. But as the authors point out, typical adverbs, such as those ending in “-ly,” aren’t normally used to modify forms of the verb “be.”
That role is normally played by adjectives, or by prepositions of the kind we’re discussing—“inside,” “outside,” “above,” “below,” and so on. And such words, the authors write, “no more modify the verb than does young in They are young.”
[Here you might ask, Then why aren’t these words adjectives? “Below” certainly looks like an adjective in uses like “the water below.” The Cambridge Grammar discusses this at length and gives reasons including these: Prepositions can have objects but adjectives can’t. Prepositions are fixed, while adjectives can be inflected for degree (as in “heavy,” “heavier,” “heaviest”) or modified by “very” and “too.” As we wrote on the blog in 2012, the adjectival use of “below” premodifying a noun, as in “Click on the below link,” is not generally accepted.]
In summary, Huddleston and Pullum suggest that if an “-ly” adverb cannot be substituted for the word, then it’s not an adverb. And if a complement could be added (as in “The basket is outside the door”), then it’s not an adverb.
The next influential scholarly grammar to be published, the Oxford Modern English Grammar (2011), written by Bas Aarts, reinforces and builds on this distinction between transitive and intransitive prepositions. And it includes “below” in a list of prepositions that can be used either way—with or without a complement.
Aarts also discusses prepositions that follow a verb and can either stand alone or have a complement: “We might go out” or “We might go out for a meal” … “I shall probably look in” … or “I shall probably look in at the College.”
In short, modern developments in linguistics have given “below” a new label—it’s a preposition, and only a preposition. The traditional view lives on in dictionaries, and no doubt it will persist for quite some time. But in our opinion, the new label makes more sense.