a. Under
b. Below
c. Beneath
d. Underneath

Which of these necessarily means directly under in such a way that a vertical line can connect the two objects?

We do say 'below sea level', but not 'under sea level'.
Could one say 'The city was below the hills'?
Could one say: 'The city lay below the hills'?
Could one say: 'We were standing below the mountains'?
Could one say: 'Romeo was standing below Juliet's window'? (My feeling is that here we need 'under' because he is directly under it')

My theory is that when we say 'under' we mean that a vertical line can be drawn connecting the two things. Would you say that is correct?

When something is under something else, it is also below it, but the converse doesn't work. Is that correct?

Many thanks.

Original Post
azz posted:

a. Under
b. Below
c. Beneath
d. Underneath

Which of these necessarily means directly under in such a way that a vertical line can connect the two objects?

Hi, Azz,

I think "underneath" and "beneath" are the only words of those four which come close to necessarily meaning that, and even with them one might want to add the adverb "right" or "directly": "right/directly underneath/beneath."

azz posted:

We do say 'below sea level', but not 'under sea level'.

"Sea level" is an abstraction. It is not an object that can be connected  with another by means of a vertical line. But the preposition "under" is sometimes used with "the sea" as its object, as in the English translation of the French novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers).

azz posted:

Could one say 'The city was below the hills'?
Could one say: 'The city lay below the hills'?
Could one say: 'We were standing below the mountains'?

Yes.

azz posted:

Could one say: 'Romeo was standing below Juliet's window'? (My feeling is that here we need 'under' because he is directly under it')

Directly beneath Juliet's window is the material on which the window is mounted.

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Azz,

My take on these is largely the same as David's.  The words have different applications, such as rank within a hierarchy or numerical value, but when used to describe physical position, "beneath", "under", and "underneath" are more likely to be understood to mean that a strictly vertical line can pass through both things, while "below" simply means "at a lower altitude", although in some cases it can imply proximity as well.

1a: He lived in the city under the mountain.
1b: He lived in the city below the mountain.
1c: He lived in the city beneath the mountain.
1d: He lived in the city underneath the mountain.

To me, (1b) means that the city was in a valley, at or near the base of the mountain.  All the others mean that it was necessary to pass through a tunnel to access the city.

2a: When it started raining, I stood under the overhang so I wouldn't get wet.
2b: When they started shooting, I crouched below the top of the wall so I wouldn't get hit.

"Beneath" also works in (2a).  "Underneath" sounds a bit awkward to me, but it would mean the same thing.

You wrote:

Could one say: 'Romeo was standing below Juliet's window'? (My feeling is that here we need 'under' because he is directly under it')

to which David responded:

Directly beneath Juliet's window is the material on which the window is mounted.

He can't be said to have been standing directly under her balcony, either, or he wouldn't have been able to see her lean her cheek upon her hand.  But he was standing below both the window and the balcony.

I find the phrases "under the sea" (as used in the theme song from Flipper and the title of the Jules Verne novel mentioned by David) and "beneath the sea" misleading.  They are used to mean "beneath the surface of the ocean".  I don't hear people describe things as being "under the lake" or "beneath the swimming pool".  If I did, I would expect them to mean that the things were underneath the dirt or concrete at the bottom of these bodies of water.

"Under", "beneath", and "underneath" can also be used to describe things covered by layers.

Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask, I am wearing a frown

"I'm a Loser", John Lennon and Paul McCartney

I might say:

3: Last week I got a splinter in the bottom of my foot.  Since then, it has worked its way under the skin.

If I am standing, or sitting with my feet on the floor, the splinter is actually above the skin, altitudinally speaking.

You might say:

4a: Janice is always prepared for a change of plans.  She is wearing jogging shorts and a T-shirt under her dress.

I would take this to mean that the shirt and shorts are in the usual place where people wear such things, but we can't see them because they are covered by her dress.  But if you said:

4b: She is wearing jogging shorts below her dress.

I would expect them to be around her ankles.  Or possibly her knees, if it was a short dress.

DocV

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Thank you so much.

Amazing replies! Very thorough! I loved them! Just amazing. I don't know how to thank you. I really appreciate all the work you have put into this.

This is the best grammar site!

David, DocV and Gustavo, the three musketeers of grammar!

Many thanks.

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