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Home | 2016 | January

The below above

Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2016-01-06 11:20.

You know that a grammatical battle is close to being lost when even professional writers, who could reasonably be expected to know better, turn up on the side of the enemy. In such cases, therefore, we are close to a grammatical lost cause.

For many years, too many to remember, we have encountered the barbarous use of 'above' as an adjective in phrases such as 'the above paragraph'. As long as such strange formulations stay in the field of business or science, which is where they mainly seem to spring up, this usage has been unpleasant but relatively harmless.

Unfortunately, like mould in an elderly pot of jam, such barbarisms spread quickly. It was only a few years ago that I first encountered in a business presentation the startling phrase 'the below image'. That nearly caused a brain reboot at the time.

Now we have, God help us, a professional offender writing 'The below graphs are part of it' and 'justify my praise by publishing the below graph'.

In all these examples, 'above' and 'below' are being used as adjectives. If we were to write 'the long paragraph', 'the red image' or 'the complex graph' we would have examples of adjectives – 'long', 'red', 'complex' – qualifying the nouns that follow them.

English is an uninflected language. This means that individual words do not have forms (usually endings) that indicate the role of the word in the sentence. In an inflected language such as German you can change the order of words in a sentence around very freely. Each word carries a little marker saying what it does and its position in the sentence is largely a matter of taste. English, on the other hand, has almost no word markers, so that English speakers have to rely on word order to communicate meaning. Word order is important.

In the examples above, the brain of a native speaker of English expects the word that comes before the noun to belong to that category of words called 'adjectives' that describe nouns. There are, of course, all manner of exceptions and nuances to such rules but for the sake of our argument we only need to use the simple case.

However, 'above' and 'below' are not adjectives and never have been; they can be used either as prepositions 'the rug below the table' or as adverbs 'jumped into the stream below'. Let's not get into the obscurities of the differences between prepositions and adverbs, that is not necessary for our argument.

There is no need to use 'above' and 'below' as adjectives, we can use them elegantly and concisely as prepositions (or adverbs): 'the paragraph above', 'the image below'. The ignorant misuse of 'above' and 'below' as adjectives is thus completely unnecessary and demonstrates only the user's insensitivity to language.

You might be justified in calling me a pedant if using 'above' and 'below' as adjectives were an elegant and concise solution to what otherwise might be a messy articulation, but it isn't. The traditionally correct use is simple and elegant. Mangling grammar in this way is just that: pointless mangling by the ignorant or sloppy.

By their deeds shall we know them.