Introduction to the French Adverbs Dessus and Dessous

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Dessus and dessous were originally prepositions, but today are more commonly used as adverbs. They are found in a number of adverbial phrases, such as au-dessus/au-dessous, là-dessus/là-dessous, and par-dessus/par-dessous, as well as in various idiomatic expressions.

Despite their similar spelling and subtle (to untrained ears) difference in pronunciation, dessus and dessous are exact opposites. If you have trouble remembering which means above and which means below, try this: dessous has an extra letter, which makes it heavier, so it sinks below. Dessus is lighter, and thus floats on top.

Dessus and Dessous

Dessus means on or on top of and is similar in meaning to the preposition sur. However, as you can see in the following examples, sur must be followed by a noun, while dessus can only be used when the noun has already been mentioned.

La valise est sur la table. The suitcase is on the table.
Voici la table - mettez la valise dessus. There's the table - put the suitcase on it.
Son nom est marqué sur le papier. His name is on the paper.
Prenez le papier, son nom est marqué dessus. Take the paper, his name is on it.
Assieds-toi sur le siège. Sit down on the seat.
Tu vois le siège ? Assieds-toi dessus. You see the seat? Sit on it.

Dessous means under, beneath, or below and is similar in meaning to sous, with the same distinction as between dessus and sur, above.

La valise est sous la table. The suitcase is under the table.
Voici la table - mettez la valise dessous. There's the table - put the suitcase under it.
Le prix est marqué sous le verre. The price is marked on the bottom of the glass.
Prenez le verre, le prix est marqué dessous. Take the glass, the price is marked on the bottom.
Jean s'est caché sous le siège. Jean hid under the seat.
Tu vois le siège ? Jean s'est caché dessous. You see the seat? Jean hid underneath it.

Au-dessus and Au-dessous

The construction au-dessus (de)/au-dessous (de) is used to indicate a fixed object's position: on top of, above / below, underneath. It can replace sur/sous or dessus/dessous; i.e., it may or may not be followed by a noun. When au-dessus/au-dessous is followed by a noun, the preposition de must be placed in between.

   Personne ne vit au-dessus de mon appartement.
   No one lives above my apartment.

   J'aime mon appart - personne ne vit au-dessus.
   I like my apartment - no one lives above (it).

   La valise est au-dessous de la table.
   The suitcase is under the table.

   Tu vois cette table ? La valise est au-dessous.
   You see that table? The suitcase is underneath (it).

Ci-dessus and Ci-dessous

Ci-dessus/Ci-dessous is used in writing, to indicate that something can be found above or below that point.

   Regardez les exemples ci-dessus.
   See the above examples.

   Veuillez trouver mon adresse ci-dessous.
   Please see my address below.

De dessus and De dessous

De dessus/De dessous is fairly rare. It means from on top of / from underneath.

   Prenez vos livres de dessus la table.
   Take your books from/off the table.

   Il a tiré de dessous sa chemise un livre.
   He took a book from underneath his shirt.

En dessous

When indicating a position, en dessous is interchangeable with au-dessous. However, it can also mean underhandedly or shiftily. The construction "en dessus" does not exist.

   Le papier est en dessous du livre.
   The paper is under the book.

   Il m'a jeté un coup d'œil en dessous.
   He glanced at me shiftily.

Là-dessus and Là-dessous

Là-dessus/Là-dessous designates something that is on top of / underneath something "over there."

   Les livres sont là-dessus.
   The books are (on that thing) over there.

   Tu vois l'escalier ? Mets le sac là-dessous.
   Do you see the staircase? Put the bag under it.

Par-dessus and Par-dessous

Par-dessus/Par-dessous indicate a sense of movement and may or may not be followed by a noun.

   Il a sauté par-dessus.
   He jumped over it.

   Je suis passé par-dessous la barrière
   I went under the barrier. 

Expressions With Dessus

le dessus top
avoir le dessus to have the upper hand
à l'étage au-dessus upstairs, on the floor above
à l'étage du dessus upstairs, on the floor above
avoir par-dessus la tête de to be fed up with, to have had enough of
bras dessus, bras dessous arm in arm
dessus dessous upside down
un dessus-de-lit bedspread
le dessus du panier the best of the bunch, the upper crust
un dessus de table table runner
faire une croix dessus to write something off, know you'll never see it again
un pardessus overcoat
par-dessus bord overboard
par-dessus la jambe (informal) carelessly, offhandedly
par-dessus le marché into the bargain, on top of that
par-dessus tout especially, mainly
prendre le dessus to get the upper hand
reprendre le dessus to get over it

Expressions With Dessous

le dessous

bottom, underside, sole, hidden side
les dessous

underwear

à l'étage du dessous downstairs, on the floor below
à l'étage en-dessous downstairs, on the floor below
avoir le dessous to get the worst of, be at a disadvantage
connaître le dessous des cartes to have inside information
être au-dessous de to be incapable of
le dessous de caisse underbody (of a car)
un dessous-de-plat hot pad (for putting under hot dishes)
un dessous de robe slip
le dessous-de-table under the table payment
un dessous de verre coaster, drip mat
par-dessous la jambe (informal) carelessly, offhandedly

Pronunciation