Ask the wise old owl
What’s the difference between below, underneath, and beneath?
This question came up in my Facebook group for learners of English. If you’d like to join the Facebook group too, you can find it here – just don’t forget to answer the questions or your request will not be approved.
Firstly, these words have a similar meaning and they are used for when something is below or underneath something else. However, there are definitely differences – I could say that my dog is under the table or underneath the table, but not below the table.
If something is covered by the other thing, like the dog under the table, it’s under the table. The cat is under the duvet or beneath the duvet. Beneath sounds a bit more formal and I probably wouldn’t use it in conversation. The cat is not below the duvet because here, what is important is not the position of the duvet and the cat, but the fact that the cat has snuggled under the duvet and is covered by it.
Under can also mean “less than” when we are talking about things that can be counted, or people’s age. Everything on this shelf is under £10. So everything on the shelf costs less than £10. But it isn’t physically under something, so we can’t use “underneath” or “beneath” here. People under 18 cannot be served alcohol.
Under is used in some expressions, and as these are fixed expressions, you can’t use another word. The website is under construction – not beneath or below construction. I’ve been under a lot of pressure lately – not beneath or underneath a lot of pressure.
Below can also mean less than, particularly when you are talking about a physical scale – if the temperature is below 20 degrees, I don’t want to eat outside. We could use less than 20 degrees or under 20 degrees, but not underneath 20 degrees, because the temperature isn’t a physical thing that can be under something else.
Below is used when something is underneath something else, but not directly – it’s just in a lower position. This area might flood because it’s below sea level.
We can also use under to mean that something is in a lower position. The bedroom is under/below/underneath the study, so we need to be quiet when working late at night.
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