Monday, April 18, 2011

Prepositions: OVER vs. ABOVE

Native speakers of English usually find it very difficult to explain the difference between the prepositions over and above, but nevertheless have very clear intuitions about when each should be used. Today's post will be getting into some detail about the factors driving these intuitions. The system is quite beautiful in its logic and very revealing about semantic structure.

We need to start by recognising that one of the main uses of over is to indicate a path of motion above (i.e., higher than) something:

  • Jill travelled over the hill.

The path doesn't have to be one of motion - it can also be a line of sight (among other things):

  • Empedocles looked over his back fence.

If you were able to travel along these paths, it would be possible to drop things along the way that would fall on the hill or his back fence, and the path of falling objects is also very important for understanding how over is used:

  • The bomber flew over the target. [path of motion above]
  • The bomber is over the target. [The aircraft is where it needs to be to drop bombs onto the target]

There is a path of motion being followed by the aircraft and a path of motion that could be followed by bombs dropped from it.

Here are some other examples involving the latter path, where things are falling or at least loaded with the potential to fall:

  • The sword is hanging over the head of Damocles. [The sword is positioned such that it could fall onto his head]
  • The umbrella is over Jill. [The umbrella is in the path of the rain, stopping it from falling on Jill]

The difference between holding an umbrella above and holding it over provides a helpful illustration. The umbrella is over Jill if it stops the rain falling on her. The similarity in meaning between over and above is due to the fact that things usually have to be dropped from above to be on a course to hit them, but if the wind is blowing the rain at an angle, only some of the positions that are above will also be over:

If the umbrella were being used to protect Jill from the Sun instead of the rain, she would have to be in the umbrella's shadow for it to be over her. It depends on which trajectory is relevant in context. The umbrella could be in the path of rain, light, a person's line of sight or anything else pointing towards it.

Consider another example where something is both over and above at the same time:
  • The roof is over Jill's head.
  • The roof is above Jill's head.

The use of over in the first sentence emphasizes the role that the roof plays in providing shelter for the people who live under it, while the sentence with above is simply stating its position.

Given the way over works with umbrellas and roofs, we can now understand why it's often used with verbs for covering:

  • Jill wore a large coat over her clothes. [The coat blocks the line of sight to her clothes]
  • Jill painted over the graffiti. [The paint blocks the line of sight to the graffiti]

We're no longer talking about blocking objects that are literally falling, but in English we can also talk about a person's line of sight or their focus of attention as if they are falling on things:

  • Jill's eyes fell upon a small piece of paper.
  • The piece of paper caught Jill's attention. [as if her attention is a falling object like a ball that can be caught]

In the following examples, we can see the elements of (1) motion above, (2) falling, and (3) covering all at once:

  • Jill sprinkled flour over the counter. [her hand is moving above the counter, she is dropping flour, and the flour is covering the counter]
  • Empedocles poured water over the fire. [his hand is moving above the fire, he is dropping water, and the water is covering the fire]

The continuum of meanings associated with over extends in many different directions based on these core concepts. A few examples (not an exhaustive list):

  • The song played over the radio/airwaves. [path of motion extended to path of transmission]
  • Jill looked over her notes. [motion above extended to shifting attention]
  • They argued over money and how the children should be raised. [shifting attention over topics that are metaphorically covered by a conversation]
  • Jack stood over Jill. [threatening like a bomber over a target or a sword hanging over Damocles]
  • Jill crossed over the border/a threshold. [motion above extended to crossing]
  • The price of oil is now over one hundred and ten dollars a barrel. [crossing in space extended to surpassing values on a scale]

The meaning of over is also extended to paths in time:

  • Jill worked over a period of three days. [path of motion extended to path in time]

And as with paths through space, things can metaphorically fall from a path in time, so in English, we speak of events falling on particular days as if events are objects and time is a path that runs above days represented as surfaces that events can be on:

  • Jill's birthday will fall on a Friday this year.

We can also speak of things covering a period of time:

  • Jill's biography covers the period of her youth and early career.

See the space and time tag for more posts about the spatial metaphors that structure the way we talk about time. Note that over can also be a noun (used in the sport of cricket) and an adjective (meaning finished). What I've said above only applies to its use as a preposition.

Above is far simpler in its meaning than over, but there are a few complications.

It can mean at a higher level:

  • The summit is 8,848 metres above sea level.
  • The water level was above that of the flood in New Orleans.
  • Jill lifted the child above the crowd.

Above also means higher in a vertical line, as opposed to at a higher level but possibly to one side:
  • There was a sign above the door.

When there is potential ambiguity, we say directly above or right above to make it clear that we mean in a vertical line (and in close proximity).

Note that what counts as up depends on the frame of reference. For example, if the frame of reference is a book, paragraph A will still be above paragraph B when the book is turned upside-down.

Many of these details are of course not things that non-natives need to be taught when learning English, but are nevertheless part of a full account of the meanings of these words.

Because of the verticality aspect of above and some senses of over, they form part of a general system of metaphors for treating more as up and good as up. This is a huge subject on its own, which I won't go into here, suffice to say that many spatial terms relating to up are used to express more and better. Some examples involving above:

  • One hundred is above ninety-nine. [the spatial meaning of higher extends to comparisons of values on scales other than height]
  • Jill was above that sort of childish behaviour. [more moral]

Some examples involving over:
  • Jill is over eighteen. [the spatial meaning of higher extended to age with a sense of movement upwards/crossing a threshold]
  • The current design is an improvement over the old one. [the spatial meaning of higher extended to better with a sense of movement upwards]

Under and below are the counterparts of over and above such that under is sensitive to paths of motion, falling, covering, and so on, while below is not:
  • They passed under the bridge. [motion below]
  • Empedocles looked under the rock. [line of sight below]
  • Jill was under the umbrella. [protected from falling things]
  • The graffiti was still visible under the paint. [paint covering the graffiti]
  • The questions under consideration were money and how the children should be raised. [the topics that were covered by the considerations]



  1. Excellent clarification! (nice figures too!)

    Could you also consider bringing into this topic, as far as they may be relevant to understand their use as spatial and figurative descriptions of situations, the prepositions: "on", "onto", "upon", "on top", "atop", "on top of"?

  2. @smoonoz
    Thank you! (and thank you!)

    There is a lot to say about on, but the central concept is physical contact that is again extended by analogy to various other things. I talked a little about spatial and temporal meanings of on in this post, but there is much more to say about it that's probably worth a post of its own. I'll be mentioning systematic metaphors in some future posts too, particularly in relation to time, which is something I find fascinating.

    Some brief comments about the other prepositions you mentioned:

    Like over, the preposition onto has a path of motion aspect to it, but in this case, the idea is that the path ends on something. Compare this with off (and for some Americans off of) which can have a path of motion meaning with the path beginning on something. On can also have a path of motion interpretation as well as the simple physical contact meaning, but that makes it ambiguous in some circumstances. Using onto avoids that ambiguity.

    On top of is short for on the top of and means in contact with the top surface of. You would just say on top without an of when it's obvious from context which surface you mean.

    Atop is a poetic or literary way of saying on top of.

    Upon is a very formal and/or old-fashioned way of saying on.

  3. its really a good site to go wid prepositions u can see n hw to use dem..

  4. v.nice explanation