Getting to the bottom of the French words “dessous” and “dessus”

In French, you’ll often come across two similar words that are actually each other’s opposite: dessous and dessus.

What is the difference between dessous and dessus? What do they mean? And how are they used?

Let’s learn about these two sometimes tricky words that can turn the world upside-down!

What do dessous and dessus mean?

Dessous essentially means “under(it)” or “beneath (it)”. Depending on the context, it could also be precisely translated as “underneath,” “beneath,” “below”, or “underside”.

As we’ll see further on, this meaning can be extended so that it can also signify things like “downstairs”, “on the floor below”, or even “underwear.”

Dessus essentially means “above (it)” or “(on) top (of it)”, or in some cases, “on” (ex: Le fonctionnaire a mis un tampon dessus. (The government worker put a stamp on it.)).

How to tell the difference between dessous and dessus

The view looking up from the center of the Eiffel Tower.
La vue d’en dessous de la Tour Eiffel.

At a glance, dessus and dessous look – and, for many non-native French speakers, sound – incredibly similar. But here’s a trick that will make it easy to tell them apart.

In the word dessous, you’ll find sous, another French word that means “under” or “underneath”.  

Not only can this help you remember which one is which; it can help you pronounce the words correctly.

While dessus is said without lingering too much on the sound of the “u”, dessous insists a bit more on the “oo” sound.

How is dessous used?

The word dessous essentially means “under”, “beneath,” or “below”. It can be:

  • a preposition (ex: Il y avait un lit. J’ai posé ma valise dessous. (There was a bed. I put my suitcase beneath it.)).
  • an adverb (ex: C’est bien sa gourde, il y a son nom écrit dessous (This is definitely his water bottle, his name is written on the bottom.)
  • a noun (ex: Le dessous de la casserole était complètement brûlé. (The bottom of the pot was completely burnt.)

In addition to meaning “bottom” or “underside”, dessous can have other meanings as a noun. These include:

  • downstairs/the floor just below (ex: C’est le père de la voisine de dessous – tu ne l’as jamais vu avant ? (He’s our downstairs neighbor’s father – you’ve never seen him before?))
  • underwear (ex: Des dessous séchaient sur le balcon. (Underwear was laid out to dry on the balcony))
  • underlying story/secrets (Ex: Il se peut qu’on ne sache jamais les dessous de cette histoire. (It’s possible that we’ll never know all of the secrets that lie at the bottom of this story.))

Common expressions with dessous 

A view looking up in the stairwell of a typical Parisian apartment building. The bannisters are wood, the railings are metal bars, and the shape looks like a slightly warped curve, which is why so many people like to take pictures like this!

Often, dessous is paired with another word or preposition. This may have originated as a way to emphasize its meaning or to be more precise.

These expressions may seem very similar to one another – and in some cases, they seem to be used interchangeably. The main thing is to be able to recognize them and understand how they’re generally used. Over time, they’ll come naturally to you. I say this from experience. I’ve learned most of these simply by being exposed to French for a long time, especially everyday spoken French.

Ci-dessous

Below (as in, attached or included below a note/email).

Ex: Vous trouverez un compte-rendu ci-dessous (You’ll find a write-up below this message.)  

Ci-dessous is a common phrase you’ll see in correspondance as well as books is Voir ci-dessous (See below.)

En dessous (de)

Below, underneath.

Ex: En dessous de la petite statue, ils ont trouvé le poinçon de l’artiste. (Underneath the little statue, they found the imprint of the artist’s mark.)

Là-dessous

Underneath, below OR about or involved in something.

Ex: 1: Attention à ne pas marcher sur le sable par ici; il y a des œufs de tortues là-dessous.  (Be careful not to walk on the sand here, there are turtles’ eggs buried underneath).

Ex 2: Ils disent qu’ils se détestent, mais je crois qu’il y a un peu d’amour là-dessous ! (They say they hate each other, but I think there’s a bit of love beneath all that!)

Par-dessous

Under (usually with the sense of passing under something).

Ex: On a mis une grille sur la bouche du tunnel condamné mais nous sommes arrivés à passer par-dessous. (They put a fence over the opening of the abandoned tunnel but we were able to pass beneath it.).

How is dessus used?

The word dessus essentially means “above” or “on top”. It can be used as:

  • a preposition (ex: Elle a mis son verre d’eau dessus. (She put her glass of water on it.))
  • an adverb (ex: Il portait un t-shirt avec l’image d’un chat dessus. (He was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a cat on it.))
  • a noun (ex: Il faut nettoyer cette statue — le dessus de sa tête est couvert de crottes de pigeon! (This statue really needs to be cleaned — the top of the head is covered in pigeon poop!)

Le dessus can also mean “the upper hand” (ex: Il pensait pouvoir gagner, mais j’avais le dessus. (He thought he’d be able to win, but I had the upper hand.)

Dessus can also be a noun or adjective that means “upstairs”. Ex: C’est notre voisin de dessus. (He’s our upstairs neighbor.)

When used with par, it means “overcoat” or “greatcoat” (ex: Il portait un pardessus. (He was wearing an overcoat.))

Common expressions with dessus

A small, elaborate diamond tiara or crown, with a small teardrop diamond or crystal hanging from the oval sits on a smallish round table that looks partially covered by a satin tablecloth, or maybe that's a dress or decorative cloth or garment. The background is blurred.

Like dessous, dessus is often paired with another word or preposition. This may have originated as a way to emphasize its meaning or to be more precise. The most common of these pairings that you’ll see (and probably come to use) are.  

Au-dessus de – above

Au-dessus de can mean above in a literal sense or in a way that indicates something like value or rank.

J’ai mis le bocal au dessus de l’étagère, comme ça il est hors de portée du bébé. 

I put the jar on top of the shelves: that way, it’s out of reach of the baby.

Dans la noblesse, une princesse est au dessus d’une duchesse. 

In the nobility, a princess is higher than a duchess.

You’ll find au-dessus de in many common phrases, including: au-dessus de nos têtes (over/above our heads/overhead) and au-dessus de la moyenne (above average).

Au-dessus – above, overhead

As with au-dessus de, au-dessus can be used in a literal or figurative sense.

Le lac reflétait les nuages qui passaient au-dessus. 

The lake reflected the clouds that floated above it.

Ci-dessus – above, aforementioned

Ci-dessus is often used in writing, especially formal or professional correspondence.

J’ai parlé du mot dessous ci-dessus. 

I talked about the word dessous above.

Là-dessus – on this/that/there,  about that/on that topic

Vous pouvez mettre vos manteaux là-dessus. 

You can put your coats on that/there.

Je me suis renseigné là-dessus. 

I’ve read up on that.

Is it really necessary to use dessous and dessus?

In many cases, dessous or dessus can be replaced by a similar, often simpler word. For instance, Il a glissé la lettre en dessous de la porte (He slid the letter under the door) could also be said Il a glissé la lettre sous la porte.  So, do you need to use them?

In general, when dessous or dessus can be replaced by something else, it’s often used because the person speaking or writing simply talks that way. It’s a choice to use it, not a necessity.

But there are some exceptions – for instance, ci-dessous and ci-dessus are short ways to express “below” and “above” regarding part of a message. But in general, you may find that while you come across dessous and dessus quite often, especially in spoken French, you may not use them a lot, yourself.

For instance, personally, when it comes to talking about where things are in space, I usually find myself using other, often shorter prepositions. I typically only use dessous or dessus with the phrase voisin(e) de (neighbor from (downstairs/upstairs)) or the phrase là-dessus (about it, on that subject).  

But there is one way that dessous and dessus truly are useful and irreplaceable.

As you may have noticed, the French language often requires additional articles, prepositions, and other words to do things like describe where something is located. Dessous and dessus can be shortcuts for that.

For example, you could say J’ai mis une cerise sur le gateau,(I put a cherry on top of the cake) or, if we understand that you’re talking about a cake, you could make it simpler by using dessus: J’ai mis une cerise dessus. (I put a cherry on (top of) it.).

Similarly, dessous can mean “under/beneath it.” For instance: Le mien a une étoile dessous. (Mine has a star on the bottom.)

So essentially, if you don’t want to use an additional article or preposition, dessous or dessus could be a good option. In this vein, there are certain phrases typically used with them, such as marquée dessus (written or drawn on something).

You can find a few more examples in this excellent article about these two somewhat tricky words.

That said, you may find it easy or even automatic not to use dessous and dessus. But you’ll still come across them, so it’s important to know what they mean and  and how they work.

When dessous and dessus come together

A crystal ball reflects a paved road with yellow lines and the treeline and electric lines above - but upside-down.

Dessous and dessus are at once opposites, and a pair. But what happens when they come together?  

There are two common French expressions that unite these words – and the effects of both can be pretty dramatic:

Sens dessus dessous – upside-down, topsy-turvy

Like its English equivalent, the expression sens dessus dessous can literally refer to someone or something’s position in space, or be a figurative way to describe chaos or a major change.  

For instance: La maison a été cambriolée, tout était sens dessus dessous (The house had been burgled – everything had been turned upside-down (was in disarray)).

Note that this expression tends to imply a certain disorder, as opposed to the more neutral way to say “upside-down” in French: à l’envers.

Bras dessus, bras dessous – arm in arm

As you probably guessed, bras dessus, bras dessous literally translates to “arm above, arm below” – I love that vivid visual. Here’s how it’s used in a sentence: Les deux amis se promenaient dans la ville bras dessus, bras dessous. (The two friends walked through the city arm in arm).

How can I practice using dessous and dessus?

The best way to get used to dessous and dessus is by listening to and reading French. You can find ways to do that in our article on (mostly free!) French learning resources. You can also check out these additional language exchange websites and conversation partner recommendations.


I hope this lesson about dessous and dessus hasn’t left you feeling sens dessous dessus. Just remember that the most important thing is to be able to recognize and differentiate these two words.  Listen to, read, and speak French as often as you can and tu auras le dessus!

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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  1. Thanks for this!

    I’m a rock climber, and trying to make some new climbing partners here in France. Talking about the technicalities of climbing and route reading can be difficult!

    “Right hand to the small edge… er… above.. below… the next bolt…” is not very useful!

    Reply
  2. Thank you so much for this – I have been challenged by these two words and I found your article and verbal guides very helpful!

    Reply

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