Usage and Grammar

Q. Often lately, in drafts I’m editing as well as in emails from colleagues, I’ve seen “below” as an adjective—for instance, “the below example.” This looks and sounds wrong to me. To my further dismay, I just noticed it in an example in my agency’s writing guidance (which I’m partly responsible for updating). CMOS 5.250 doesn’t address this matter, but when I searched the Manual for “the below,” there were no results. Merriam-Webster lists “below” as an adjective and shows it being used before a noun (“the below list”)—but I’ve been told Merriam-Webster presents common usage rather than good usage. The American Heritage Dictionary, which I understand is more prescriptive, lists “below” only as an adverb or preposition. Before I do battle about “below” in our writing guidance, I’d like to know your opinion. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

A. We agree that “the example below” would generally be preferable to “the below example”; the absence of below as an adjective in at least one major dictionary is a good piece of evidence in favor of such a preference. The OED provides more evidence in your favor. That dictionary includes the adjectival sense, but with this label: “rare in comparison with ABOVE adj.” And it defines both below and above as adjectives only in the sense of “below-mentioned” and “above-mentioned” (or “-listed,” “-described,” etc.).

This accords with how below and above as adjectives are both defined in Merriam-Webster, so we can conclude that they’re a sort of shorthand for adjectival compounds like “below-mentioned” and “above-mentioned”—in which below and above, it should be noted, function not as adjectives but as adverbs that modify the participle mentioned.

(The words below and above are also used in this way as nouns—as in “refer to the below” or “none of the above.” Both the OED and Merriam-Webster include entries for these terms as nouns, and the OED makes the same note as it does for the adjective that below is rare in this sense relative to above.)

Why below seems less comfortable than above as an adjective (or as a noun) is a matter for linguists. In the meantime, you might insist that “the below example” is an uncommon usage that’s likely to strike the wrong note for at least some readers, as it did for you. Fortunately, it’s an easy problem to fix (i.e., simply move “below” so that it follows the noun).

(Feel free to cite the answer above if it will help you to make your case.)