I read in a children's book, Bliff’s fun phonics:

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"The duck is on top."

"Top" is supposed to be countable.

Why is there not an article before "top" in the phrase?

3 Answers 3


On top is an adverbial expression. Expressions like this generally don't include an article:

in front

on/in time

on show

with/in force

at ease

These are all grammatically "preposition noun", but they are treated as unanalysable units.

Many of them can also occur with an article, or other specifier, but usually have a different meaning - generally more specific.

So, as Bee says "on the top" means "on the top part (of something specific, probably already mentioned or implied)", whereas "on top" is more general, and might be figurative.

Edit: in the case of on top and in front (and in American English in back) they are also part of a complex phrase that acts as a preposition: on top of, in front of, in back of.

On top of the water functions as [On top of]preposition [the water]noun phrase. On the top of the water does not have this property, and would function as [On]preposition [the top of the water]noun phrase.

Your text just says "on top", and as Brad says, we don't know without context what this means. But I'm guessing it might mean "on top of the water".

  • as we are dealing with a phrase in this case and we have no knowledge of the rest of the sentence. I would suggest that a duck is more likely to be on the top (surface) of the water than on top of a mountain/tree etc. In which case it would be a verb However all answer are speculative till we have the rest of the sentence. But we all agree Top is not a noun in countable form.
    – Brad
    Jul 31, 2019 at 15:16
  • @Brad: your point about "on [the] top of" reminded me that I hadn't talked about prepositional use, so I have added that. But I don't agree that "Top is not a noun in countable form". I think it is a noun, and (while its countability is not relevant here) I see no reason to regard it us uncountable. It is in a special context which allows the article to be omitted.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 31, 2019 at 16:49
  • Good analysis. Users in the English Usage Forum just has no knowledge.
    – Louis Liu
    Aug 6, 2019 at 7:34

"Top" is not being used as a noun in this phrase.

Top - highest in position, rank, or degree

It would also be correct to say:

The duck is on the top.

But in this case, it means something slightly different:

Top - the highest or uppermost point, part, or surface of something.

All definitions sources from Google Dictionary


Top" is supposed to be countable. Why is there not an article before "top" in the phrase?

You are referring to countable nouns, however top is a noun, a verb, an adverb and an adjective. Cambridge English Dictionary

Because the question states this is a phrase and we do not know the rest of the sentence In this case I would suggest it is used as a verb.

top verb (HIGHEST PART) to be on the upper surface of something

  • 1
    This is completely wrong. You've taken the definition of a verb and applied it to a word that is not being used as a verb in the example sentence. In order to be used as a verb (in the present tense), the sentence would need to be rephrased: The duck tops (off) [something]. Jul 31, 2019 at 14:26
  • @Jason Bassford as it specifically states this is a phrase and we don't know the rest of the sentence, I could be correct,
    – Brad
    Jul 31, 2019 at 15:00
  • 1
    A complete sentence is given in the question. You cannot be correct that top is a verb in that sentence. Jul 31, 2019 at 20:14

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