Take your Spanish upward by learning the differences between “abajo,” “debajo,” and “bajo”
One of my last few strengthening exercises covered prepositions and while reviewing the lesson on it, I came across quite a few threads with questions related to “abajo,” “debajo,” and just plain “bajo.” I’ve replied to several of them and have spent as much time or more reviewing these three words myself. Let me just say that I have a much clearer understanding of them than when I first started. Though many of my posts on this are a bit long, none compelled me to break any off to create a separate post, until this last one. The word “long” is, of course, relative, but since so many have asked questions about this and since my latest post turned into a two-part post that spanned more than one screen, I felt it would be best to give it its own post. So, here it is. It is actually a reply to someone who asked the question:
whats the difference between debajo and bajo?
in the discussion thread, “What do you have under the hat?”
Here is my reply to that question:
“¿Qué tienes bajo el sombrero?"
"bajo" is being used as a preposition that means "under."
You will discover, as you continue your study of Spanish (and English), that some words can be both adverbs and prepositions. If you think a word might be an adverb or a preposition, but aren't sure, look to see if a noun follows that word. If it does, chances are, it will be a preposition. Some adverbs (not all) can take on the role of a preposition when the word "de" is added to them. For example:
El cangrejo va debajo del agua. (Here "debajo del" is a preposition.)
The crab goes under the water.
You could also say/write:
El cangrejo va bajo el agua. (Here "bajo" is a preposition.)
But, "The crab goes under," would be said/written:
El cangrejo va debajo. (Here "debajo" is an adverb.)
Keep in mind that prepositional phrases can serve as "adverbial phrases" (or adjectival phrases) depending on their function in the sentence. For example, "with a shell," or “of claws,” likely describes a noun, making it an adjectival phrase, but "under the water" or “along the shore” is likely to be describing a verb (as in the "how" or "where" of an action), making it an adverbial phrase.
In a second post, I wrote:
After writing my initial reply, I remembered something I had recently read on this topic that may be important to your understanding of the difference between "debajo" and "abajo."
"Debajo", formed with de- plus bajo, indicates a position that it is immediately below another. In most cases, it is followed by "de" to indicate below which thing or person we are referring to (eg. debajo de la mesa).
For example, "Están abajo" means "They are down there", but "Están debajo", we are saying that "They are below (something)", where this "something" can be implicitly stated. With "debajo", they are RIGHT below some given reference point, such as a floor.
The above excerpt is a post by lazarus1907 in a Span¡shD!ct discussion thread. Lazarus1907's profile reports that he is fluent in both Spanish and English, but I do not know whether or not he is a native speaker of Spanish. I am not disputing what he claims about the nuance in meaning between "abajo" and "debajo," but until I read his post, I had never heard of such a distinction between these two words, and that's after the equivalent of four years of high school Spanish, some follow-on classes, searching through several Spanish grammar books, and three dictionaries (specifically WordReference, Collins Unabridged, and the DRAE).
I'm not suggesting that what lazarus1907 wrote isn't true, but it may be a distinction only a very few use in practice. While "debajo" may be interchangeable with "abajo," it is my understanding that "abajo de" should not be swapped out for "debajo de." You may hear both, but "debajo de" is the more common, standard phrase. To back that up, WordReference does not list an entry for “abajo de” and to back that up even further, I’ll quote guifa, from the Spanish Language StackExchange discussion thread, ”What is the difference between ‘abajo,’ ‘debajo,’ and ‘bajo?’”:
Abajo de for locations is recommended to be avoided in most situations and isn't generally thought of as part of Standard Spanish, but you'll hear it nonetheless quite frequently in some dialects in low-mid registers and isn't outright rejected by the RAE.
*For the record, guifa is currently ranked #2 (of all time) for the Spanish Language StackExchange, a StackExchange that receives more than 7,000 visitors a day and has answered more than 3,000 questions about the Spanish language.
Backing this up even beyond that is what I found through searches of Tatoeba, a sentence dictionary. I found 139 sentences with the word "debajo" in them. All but seven used "debajo de" and those seven with just "debajo" ranged from:
Debajo puedes leer las instrucciones que se te darán durante el examen final.
Below, you can read the instructions you will be given during the final exam.
Más allá de la luna, todas las cosas son eternas; debajo, no existe nada que no sea mortal.
Above the moon, everything is eternal; below, there is nothing save mortality.
After looking at those examples, I’m beginning to think that “debajo” when used alone (without the “de”) tends to mean “below” and not “under.” Be that as it may, in contrast, I found 109 entries for "abajo" and just 10 of those were "abajo de." After scanning through those with just "abajo," I must admit that many of them seem more directional than locational whereas those with just "debajo" (see the example sentences above) appear to be referring more to a fixed place. In fact, “abajo” when used by itself without “de” (in other words, when used as an adverb) was only translated as “down,” not “under.” For example:
Yo miré hacia abajo.
I looked down.
Vivo tres puertas más abajo.
I live three doors down.
So, after looking at the Tatoeba entries, I think lazarus1907 was on the right track, but it appears to be less of a matter of distance and more of a matter of stationary versus directional. I'm more inclined to think of "debajo" (either as an adverb or a preposition), as something referring to a place or location and "abajo" as something implying movement. Perhaps a similar nuance in meaning occurs between the English counterparts for these words -- “under” and “down.” I'm tempted to add a bit about the locative case that is seen in so many languages and the delative (seen in Hungarian and Finnish), but that might confuse the beginning student of Spanish so I'll just leave it at this.
Bottom line? To be safe, use
The phrase “abajo de” is not standard, but you will sometimes hear it/see it instead of “debajo de.” Keep in mind that when you add the “de” to “abajo,” it no longer means “down.” It means “under.” Also, only in certain situations do you use “de” with “bajo.” Most of the time you should not add “de” to “bajo.” “Bajo” and “debajo de” are virtually synonymous.
Hope that helps those determine when to use each of these three words and, as always, if you have something to contribute to this topic, please post a comment!
Gracias por esto!!! Las reglas son el mismo de Adentro, Dentro y mas que eso? Gracias <3
So glad you liked it! It actually took a bit of work to think through this myself, so I figured, Why not share?
I confuse these words often. I read the preposition article, did you post other articles in the past? I enjoy your writing style, it clearly explains the subject matter.
Yes, I've written a few other articles in the past. It's good practice and the more you do something, the better you get at it. Plus, nothing like posting online to make you want to put forth your best effort. Glad it can help someone else at the same time.
But I aspire to be you! Look at those levels in Spanish and English!! And what a streak! Keep up the good work, vcel10.
Thank you for the input, Talca. Your comment makes me curious though. I'm not doubting your hunch, but what about Lazarus1907 gives you clues that he might be a native speaker?
I felt his comment seemed to be written by someone who knew the subtleties of the language
For anyone who happens to revisit this, I made some slight changes to the paragraph that begins "Keep in mind that prepositional phrases can serve as ...." It is now a bit more in line with the theme of this post, but more importantly more balanced and complete. I must confess that I often make very minor small edits to a comment after posting (often because autocorrect is often in correct and I don't catch it until later). Even when autocorrect is not to blame, most of the time the edit isn't significant enough to bother with mentioning (e.g., I notice a punctuation mark outside of the quotation mark when it should be inside), but this time I felt the change should be mentioned.
Again, thank you to all who read this post. I hope you enjoyed it.