I know this is wrong. I can't say why. It drives me bonkers.
March 7, 2018 11:34 AM   Subscribe

A colleague puts an adverb before a noun every single time. The sentence: "The below graphic provides a guideline for X." I know it's incorrect, but... why?

#1 (Wrong): "The below graphic provides a guideline for X."
#2 (Right): "The graphic below provides a guideline for X."

This sentence is intended to introduce the reader to a graphic located directly below the text to illustrate a concept. If I'm correct, "below" as used in both sentences is an adverb, not a preposition (if this matters).

If I were to say "the graphic below this text provides a guideline for...", that would be correct. But I can't make the same edit using the phrase "the below graphic" and that's a clue, to me, that something is wrong.**

Can someone clue me in? Is this an adverb, preposition, or syntax thing? Or all three?

**I learned English by things "sounding right" and because I was good at it, didn't learn the actual rules. I just know it's wrong.
posted by onecircleaday to Education (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"The above graphic" sounds fine to me, although I admit "The below graphic" does sound a little strange. But I think it's grammatically fine.

In English you can place the adverb almost anywhere in the sentence (including splitting the infinitive). The consequence is a change in emphasis and sometimes meaning, but it's all valid. Some grammarians might challenge me on this, but this is a descriptivism/prescriptivism fight, I guess. There is no one true dogma.

Boldly to go where noone has gone before.
To boldy go where noone has gone before.
To go boldy where
To go where noone has boldy gone before
To go where noone has gone before boldly

Only "To go where boldy noone" and "To go where noone boldly has gone" sound bad to me there.
posted by dis_integration at 11:51 AM on March 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do you have any other examples? “The below graphic” sounds a bit formal but not wrong to me.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:52 AM on March 7, 2018

I do not think it is incorrect, though perhaps it may sound strange.

I found a similar discussion here that might interest you: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/609/which-is-correct-the-below-information-or-the-information-below/48607
posted by Malleable at 11:53 AM on March 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I kept trying to answer and now I realize I don't know, either, but I agree with you on all points -- #2 is correct, and "below" is clearly functioning as a modifier, not a preposition.

I find, however, that I lack the vocabulary to google this effectively.
posted by uberchet at 11:54 AM on March 7, 2018

I think the way that sentence is constructed, the modifying word that comes before "graphic" needs to be an adjective. If your colleague were using an actual adjective, that would be fine. For example, you could use the term "following" in that sentence ("The following graphic provides a guideline for X") because "following" can function as an adjective (like "aforementioned" or "preceding" in other contexts).

Your colleague is trying to use "below" as an adjective, and it doesn't work, because "below" is not an adjective--it's a preposition or adverb. That's why your proposed change "The graphic below provides a guideline for X" is correct, because you're using "below" correctly, as an adverb.

On preview: "above" works OK because at least according to this dictionary, "above" can be an adverb, preposition, or an adjective. Below is never an adjective.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:55 AM on March 7, 2018 [23 favorites]

I think it's an ellipsis. It's an acceptable way of saying "the below [printed] graphic...".
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:55 AM on March 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'd agree that there isn't a strong "rule of grammar" being broken. I think it's enough to say that it's bugging you because it's not conventional usage. And because it's not, your brain has to work harder to parse the term "below graphic"

If it's a colleague and they do it all the time, it may also just be grating because a) it's odd and b) it's persistent.

It's like when you notice that J.K. Rowling uses way too many adverbs modifying "said" : once you notice, you can't unnotice.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:57 AM on March 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Above" and "below" are usually classified as adverbs ("The graphic below") or prepositions ("The plants below the window"). The phrase "The below graphic" uses "below" as an adjective. The adjective usage is apparently controversial, but common enough that I suspect you're fighting a losing battle.
posted by henuani at 11:57 AM on March 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

To say "the below graphic" is to use "below" as an adjective, not an adverb. It describes the graphic. To say "the graphic below" is to use "below" as a preposition with an implied referent, to wit "the graphic below [this paragraph]."

Is "the below graphic" wrong? I'm sure some would argue the case, but the fact remains that it's comprehensible and not confusing, and it's not an unprecedented usage. There are other linguistic hills on which I would prefer to die.

(And indeed, henuani's link gives an example of the adjectival use from 1822. It's not even new.)
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:58 AM on March 7, 2018 [23 favorites]

It's a terse syntax intended to be fake fancy or academic. It's not wrong, it's just kinda goofy. I do it sometimes.
posted by rhizome at 11:58 AM on March 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

It's being used as a preposition in #1, I think.

I suspect that it comes about because people say "the above" when referring to something previously written (although there doesn't seem to be a corresponding "the below" in common usage). This has then had the word "graphic" tacked on to it to make it a little more specific, which might well be useful. And by that logic, since "the above graphic" is allowed, then so is "the below graphic".

It's a logical but flawed progression, because at the end you get a phrase that sounds wrong to most ears.
posted by pipeski at 11:59 AM on March 7, 2018

On preview, and because I'm a teeny bit prescriptivist: what hurdy gurdy girl said.

Good: "the color graphic below..."
Bad: "the graphic color below..." "the below graphic color..."

only slightly applicable, from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis:

"Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. 'In considering this strangely neglected topic,' it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool."
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:02 PM on March 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's similar in structure to "the above graphic," as others have said, but also, "the attached graphic" or "the attached file." I taught college English for many years and am a writer, and it doesn't seem wrong to me at all, though it does seem like a usage people might not be used to.

To avoid the "the graphic below" (to which the reader might mentally reply, "the graphic below what?") a structure like "the graphic (see below) shows..." works and is also something I've seen.
posted by Orlop at 12:27 PM on March 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is fine I think and some dictionaries give an entry "below (adj.)" for this usage. But it is less prevalent than your preferred formation.

Commentators who say #1 is wrong say that "below" can't be an adjective, and the position of "below" in #1 is nonstandard for an adverb or prepositional phrase doing what it's doing (... for reasons I'm not sophisticated enough to explain).
posted by grobstein at 12:30 PM on March 7, 2018

I'm a bit baffled by the claim that "below" is an adverb in this phrase. There's no verb. How can it possibly be functioning as an adverb? It seems, pretty clearly, to be a preposition. I guess you could read it as an adjective, but I don't know why you were would unless you were grasping for a reason to say that the phrase is ungrammatical.

The construction you like is not wrong. It's just an ugly sounding construction. Things don't need to be wrong to be annoying.
posted by howfar at 12:43 PM on March 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

(I should I add that I don't think that the phrase would be ungrammatical if "below" were read as an adjective, either)
posted by howfar at 12:46 PM on March 7, 2018

I strongly agree with rhizome. "Fake fancy" is a polite way of putting it. I spent 15 years in state gov't bureaucracy and battled this constantly. Be glad they didn't say "the below graphic visual image representation..."
posted by easement1 at 12:46 PM on March 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

This word order is definitely much, much rarer with "below" than with "above". Searching in the corpus of contemporary American English for 'the below _nn*' (where '_nn*' picks any noun) gets 21 hits, searching for 'the above _nn*' gets 1484. When you check the post-noun order, the two words occur with a much closer frequency ('the _nn* below': 3558, 'the _nn* above': 4011), so I wouldn't really be shocked if "the below N" is not really acceptable to most speakers relative to the post-nominal order. (It is ungrammatical for me.)

There's not any obvious linguistic reason that I know of for there to be an asymmetry between the two words in the pre-nominal position. (Though I can come up with a story for why they should both prefer the post-nominal position, based on a bunch of research about subtle meaning differences between pairs like "the stars visible" and "the visible stars" -- basically, the post-nominal position licenses only "stage-level" predicates, ones that hold temporarily (more or less); and both 'below' and 'above' in these examples are used in a stage-level way, relative to the reader's eye gaze at a particular time.)
posted by advil at 1:17 PM on March 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

"The graphic below provides a guideline for X" is correct, because you're using "below" correctly, as an adverb.

"Below" is not an adverb here. It is still modifying "graphic," not "provides." "The graphic provides below" would be an adverbial use, but the meaning is somewhat different.

I think it's more correct to consider it as an implied preposition ("The graphic below [this writing] provides..."). That also explains why we find it more awkward placed before "graphic"; English doesn't tend to put a preposition modifying a noun before that noun. That we find "above" a little less awkward (though still rather formal, stilted, or archaic) is just idiosyncrasy of usage, I expect.
posted by praemunire at 2:56 PM on March 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Faint of Butt's response because anyone who says "There are other linguistic hills on which I would prefer to die" regarding a particular rule of grammar knows whereof they speak.
posted by she's not there at 4:42 PM on March 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Here is a detailed explanation (it also explains how "below" can be an adverb).
posted by pinochiette at 6:56 PM on March 7, 2018

I worked at places in the 90s that used the "below/above graphic" as part of their stand business-speak, so it's not unheard of in professional writing.
posted by Candleman at 10:29 PM on March 7, 2018

Yeah, it's not grammatically incorrect at all, it's just hitting your ear strangely because it's business-speak that's a bit fusty.

(Another example: Because it's the convention I was taught, I still write "Attached please find [document description]" in my business emails, which likewise sounds pretty fusty to some people.)
posted by desuetude at 10:25 AM on March 8, 2018

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