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"Up" and "Down" with reference to direction in English
Thread poster: Paul Dixon

Paul Dixon  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:26
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Jul 16, 2008

I have recently asked a question which I answered with "up the street", and a fellow translator asked if it could be "down the street". This really awoke the inquisitive bug in me, and raised in my brain the following questions:

1. When you talk about going to a certain place and use a preposition, what are the rules about use of "up" and "down"? Is it based on altitude above sea level, or latitude, or something else?

Consider someone going from Curitiba (900 m above sea level, latitude 26 South) to São Paulo (750 m above sea level, latitude 23 South). In terms of altitude, they would be going "down to São Paulo" but on the map of the world it would be "up to São Paulo".

2. Referring to streets, I guess that you would be walking "down the street" in the direction of decreasing numbers - or am I mistaken? For me, "up" and "down" are used almost interchangeably.

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Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:26
Spanish to English
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Several meanings, at least in U.S. English Jul 16, 2008

"Up" and "down" can refer to altitude, particularly in the sort of example you mentioned ("up/down the street").

In cities with numbered streets, they can also mean walking toward the higher numbered or lower numbered streets. From midtown Manhattan, one can walk "up toward Harlem" or "down toward Soho." Or, as you say, it could mean toward the higher or lower building numbers.

In the broader scheme of things, "up" means "north" and "down" means "south." So from Philadelphia, one would travel "up to Boston" or "down to Baltimore."

[Edited at 2008-07-16 17:45]

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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:26
Italian to English
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Maybe local usage also plays a part? Jul 16, 2008

It's a good question. I think a lot of the time they probably are interchangeable, especially at town/city level (of course Steven's right about up being north and down being south in the general scheme of things, and his comment on towns with numbered streets would make sense, though I have no personal experience of that).

I remember when I was at school the standard question was "you going downtown at lunchtime?" - downtown being the town centre, and either on the same level or slightly uphill of the school, so it was nothing to do with altitude! "Uptown" would have sounded very odd indeed - no one said that.
This was a town with no numbered streets (like all UK towns, to my knowledge), so that wasn't the explanation either. I think it must just have been local custom, possibly even restricted to my school.

I know I carried on using "downtown" even when I had to go uphill to get there.

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lexical  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:26
Portuguese to English
very interesting question indeed Jul 16, 2008

...and not one, I feel, that is susceptible to logic.

I think I have always said "down the street/road" and very occasionally "up the road" without any altitude or compass points being involved: they're just synonyms for "along the road/street" (I'm talking British English from the south of the country if that makes any difference).

I say "I'm going up town" when I mean I'm going to the city centre, never "downtown", to the surprise of US friends.

There may also be a hierarchical element in this, as we say "I'm going UP to London if we live in the country (though perhaps the Scots say "down to London", thinking geographically - but you'd have to ask a Scot). And British railway lines have an UP line (the line carrying trains from the provinces to London) and a DOWN line (carrying trains from London to the provinces). This applies regardless of geography or topography.

My two penn'orth.

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Miles Crew  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:26
Chinese to English
Not always consistent Jul 16, 2008

All these "rules" probably vary between countries, regions, and even individuals. I broadly agree with the above, although I would add that "down" sometimes has nothing to do with location, but rather duration- "I'm going down to the store, do you need anything?" Although, now that I think about it, this may also be related to going "downtown" from the outskirts. I'll be moving downtown soon, so maybe I'll not what pops out of my mouth and get back to you.

While I personally am usually consistent about "up" meaning north and "down" meaning south in a broader geographic area, not everybody is. My sister lives in a town about an hour south of where I live, but always says she's coming "down" for the weekend, and I'm pretty sure she's not the only one. I suppose that this may be unconsciously tied to both the temporary nature of the visit and the fact that she is moving "down" in terms of city size, but what really underlies this quirk is anybody's guess. Just console yourself with the knowledge that English doesn't always make much sense.

Edit: Simulpost- By "the above" I meant the first American respondent.

[Edited at 2008-07-16 18:27]

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Paul Malone  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:26
Member (2004)
French to English
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There are no hard and fast rules Jul 16, 2008

This is a fascinating question.

In England, if you found yourself in court you would be up in front of the judge, but if the judge sent you to prison you would be going down.

When you go to university you go up, but then you go down (usually home, not to prison) for the vacation and come up again when the new term starts.

If you live in the north of England, you travel down to London. If you live in the south of England, you go up to London. English people would never go down to Scotland, only up.

You would always go down to the beach. You may go up or down to visit friends. You could even go round to visit them, but only if they don't live very far away.

In the USA, if you lived in the center of the city or town you'd be living downtown, but if you lived in a residential part of town away from the center, you'd be living uptown.

If you were poor, but then got a fantastic job with a huge salary, you would be going up in the world, but if you found yourself living on the streets you would be down-and-out.

There is, in my opinion, no simple rule.

It can be a question of sea level, social status, direction, geographical location, personal perception.

As far as going up/down the street is concerned, it could be as simple as personal perception. What may be "down" the street to you may be "up" the street to someone else, especially if the street is flat. If the street is not flat, I would say you would definitely be walking down the street if you were walking down the hill, even if the numbers went in the opposite direction.

And if you were south of São Paulo, you would probably want to travel up to São Paulo, even if you were higher above sea level than the city itself, but in my opinion neither would be incorrect in a case like that.

As far as I know, there are no strict grammatical rules about this. Sometimes it's a case of convention and what people usually say, but sometimes it seems to be just a simple question of personal taste or preference.

I hope I haven't confused you more.

To put it more simply: 1) there are no strict grammatical rules 2) if you can't find a conventional usage that fits, go with what sounds best to you.

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Sergei Leshchinsky  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:26
Member (2008)
English to Russian
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analyse on the spot Jul 16, 2008

Paul Malone wrote:

As far as I know, there are no strict grammatical rules about this. Sometimes it's a case of convention and what people usually say, but sometimes it seems to be just a simple question of personal taste or preference.

... and perception. I perceive it as "down" being closer to me and "up" being further...

To put it more simply: 1) there are no strict grammatical rules 2) if you can't find a conventional usage that fits, go with what sounds best to you.

and see if it is "up there" or "down here"

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Tina Vonhof  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:26
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
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Up the Down Staircase Jul 16, 2008

Just as an aside and not really related to the question: one of the funniest books I have ever read is called "Up the Down Staircase" - highly recommended. See

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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:26
Member (2007)
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Comment on Paul Malone's comments Jul 17, 2008

Paul said

If you live in the north of England, you travel down to London. If you live in the south of England, you go up to London. English people would never go down to Scotland, only up.

It may well be that Northerners born and bred go down to London, but my father's from southern England, living in northern England for several years now. He still goes up to London even though it means travelling south.

My main job is teaching English, so I have to address this point constantly. Fortunately, in defence of my confusing language, I can always cite something in French that is just as illogical.

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Local time: 23:26
English to Italian
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Mental model is key Jul 17, 2008

There are ups and downs in unsuspected places. Think of a long document that won't fit in one screenful. So you must scroll, but do you go down or up?

In the early days of text editing there was (and maybe there still is) a widely supported school of thought that held: when you scroll to read lines closer to the end of a document, you are scrolling _up_! The rationale was in the mental model. They figured that you look at the document through a fixed window, behind which a long scroll is moved; in this case, to see the next lines, you do have to move the surface of the scroll _up_.
To which the other party countered: it is the scroll that stays fixed, and it is the window that moves _down_.
Needless to say, it was very discomforting to switch between SW of different parties.
Lilliput and Brobdingnag again...

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Textklick  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:26
German to English
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Down to you to decide Jul 17, 2008

In the London suburbs, irrespective of where you lived, there was always an expression meaning to travel to the city centre (usually meaning in the evening): "To go up West". It was understood by one and all, irrespective of where they were coming from.

Over recent years, the expression "It's up to you" (it is entirely your decision) has given way to "It's down to you" sometimes confused with, "It's all down to you", (it's all your fault).

As Paul Malone says, the rules are thin. So who will be reading it, and how do you think they would best understand it? How about 'along the street', in the absence of an altimeter?

Erring a little, this reminds me that in Germany, snow can be one metre 'high', whereas here it is one metre 'deep'.

See you up at the pub, or down at the restaurant.


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juvera  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:26
Member (2005)
English to Hungarian
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Agree with Sheila Jul 18, 2008

And so does the song:

A North Country maid up to London had strayed,
Although with her nature it did not agree.
She wept and she sighed, and so bitterly she cried,
"How I wish once again in the North I could be!
Oh the oak and the ash, and the bonny ivy tree,
They flourish at home in my own country."

And even the Scottish:

“Trow ye na that,” said Rob Roy; "....... But I see that this villain’s treason will convince our great folks that they must instantly draw to a head, and make a blow for it, or be taen in their houses, coupled up like hounds, and driven up to London like the honest noblemen and gentlemen in the year seventeen hundred and seven."

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"Up" and "Down" with reference to direction in English

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