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I know that "underneath" is Old-English and is close to the meaning of "under" and, yes, I know its dictionary meaning. I know that "beneath" is a more formal way to say "under" and also has a close meaning of this word, and, yes, I know its meaning too. But is there any difference between these three sentences, except formality?

You might want to search under the sofa.
You might want to search underneath the sofa.
You might want to search beneath the sofa.

In cases when we mean that something is hidden, is it better to use beneath or underneath?

The bunker is beneath the building.
The bunker is underneath the building.

  • Check out this discussion of under / underneath / beneath and related words: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/78355/… – JeremyDouglass Dec 7 '16 at 7:56
  • That's the very first question i looked through before posting my own. It not really clear to me. – SovereignSun Dec 7 '16 at 7:59
  • -1 for "can feel" and for the mistaken notion that "underneath" is a formal way to say "under". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 7 '16 at 9:37
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    Thank you. I'm a native speaker, have taught English at university level, have studied Old English and Middle English (and Early Modern and Modern English), so I'm not just talking out my ass. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 7 '16 at 10:03
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    I think we sometimes use formality interchangeably with register, though it's probably better to separate them. It's true that beneath may be used more often in some registers, and some of these registers happen to be usually rather formal. Having said that, I don't think this except from Aesop's Fables in Rhyme for Little Philosophers sounds any formal at all. "A tired lion, after hunting lay asleep beneath a great and shay tree. [...] Beneath his paw. "Have mercy, Sire!" cried she, "You are too big to kill poor little me." – Damkerng T. Dec 8 '16 at 12:38
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Your question about hidden things gets at an interesting point (even though "Under / underneath vs. etc." is much discussed on ELL). Before getting into your question specifically, I should note that frame of reference is often key to understanding these words in a wider context: "The candle was under the painting, but the map was underneath the painting" might that the candle is on a table below where the painting is hanging, while the map is behind the surface of the painting itself.

When thinking about your question on hiding, we can observe that in general:

-neath words have more intensity.

That intensity can be used to emphasize a distinction:

Under the oak tree is a rock. Underneath the oak tree is a treasure chest.

The rock is below the tree branches (on the ground); the chest is below the tree roots (in the ground). This is not always the case -- I can sit beneath a tree and read a book! But when multiple relations come into play, -neath is the more intense term.

It can also convey an emotion:

He is below me. (Might refer to standing on a ladder, or to rank, or anything)
He is beneath me. (Without context this is an insult about social status)

When -neath intensifies "under," that often implies controlling, covering, or hiding.

They met under the bridge.
They met underneath the bridge.

Here "underneath" might indicate that the space under the bridge is small, or that the bridge is big and impressive. We are made more aware of the bridge they are meeting under, they are really under it.

Her shoes were under the chair.
Her shoes were underneath the chair.

Here "underneath" might additionally imply that they were also out of sight -- both below, and covered-up.

Note that there are almost no cases here were switching the terms would be ungrammatical. Between these two intense -neath terms there are some uses that are by rote, and there is no logic. Different kind of hiding and different kinds of secrets may use each word:

  • Something hidden far under the ground is "deep beneath the earth".
  • Someone hiding true feelings may really care "underneath it all".

So, where should your hidden bunker be? Either works well.

  • What about these? The tunnel spreads beneath the alps. or The tunnel spreads underneath the alps. – SovereignSun Dec 7 '16 at 9:15
  • How about below and beneath and underneath in this context: I looked out the window and saw children playing below (beneath, underneath). – SovereignSun Dec 7 '16 at 9:16
  • Well, tunnel is unambiguous, so it doesn't matter much. However, keep in mind that "beneath" is often used with "tree," so it can make things with a shadow (like a mountain) ambiguous. "He sells hotdogs beneath Trump Tower" might mean "he works in the basement" or it might mean "his hotdog stand sits in the shadow of the tower." However, "he sells hotdogs underneath Trump Tower" probably means the cafeteria is in the basement. – JeremyDouglass Dec 7 '16 at 9:19
  • Or this: A person walked on dirt and some of it has clung onto his shoes and he says "There's dirt under (underneath, beneath) my shoes." Which is correct? – SovereignSun Dec 7 '16 at 9:20
  • Dics tell us that "beneath" has a meaning "extending or directly underneath." so with tunnel theoretically speaking it should be beneath! No? – SovereignSun Dec 7 '16 at 9:23
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I would disagree with your estimation of the formality of the words under, underneath and beneath, since they can all be used in the formal register. In most cases, they are interchangeable, but sometimes, there are nuances that makes one word more preferable than the others.

In the examples that you have given, it doesn't really matter what word is used since the shades of meaning provided by beneath and underneath are largely irrelevant. Bunkers are nearly always under buildings, and misplaced items are usually under (or behind) sofas, so saying that they are "beneath" or "underneath" doesn't really add any extra meaning.

Oxford Dictionaries Online provides useful examples for beneath and underneath where their usage is appropriate:

Behind (a physical surface): "They found another layer beneath the stucco."
Situated directly below (something else): "Our bedroom's right underneath theirs."

  • My mantra, as always, is "never us a long word where a short one will do." ;-) – Mick Dec 7 '16 at 8:53
  • I disagree a little. Underneath has a shade for something that is hidden or covered with something and also a shade for a lower part of something. Beneath has also a shade for something that is situated below. – SovereignSun Dec 7 '16 at 8:53

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