I have read a chapter on prepositions of place in a teaching manual entitled "Trainers Treasure" The author is Seth Lindstromberg and it was published in ELT JOURNAL, OUP volume 50/3, July 1996 under the title "Prepositions: Meaning and Method

It was explained that 'on' is usually used for things which are flat such as paper. On the other hand, 'on top of' is used usually for things which are tall or vertical such as bottle.

we say:

1. There is a pen on the paper

2. There is a coin on top of the bottle.

3. There is a label on the bottle

I would like to know whether we can say:

  1. There is a pen on top of the paper.

If yes, what is the context in which it can be used?

Can we say the following since the coin is placed on the lid?

  1. The coin is on the bottle
  • I do not know why this question be closed.it is neither duplicate nor is it off the topic.It is not good on the part of the users with high reputation to vote for closing Aug 26, 2019 at 14:16
  • Two users voted to migrate it over to ELL. Now, if you included the link to the actual source, it would be viewed more favourably. You have some good questions and sources, but on EL&U people expect links and citations (and proper formatting too).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 26, 2019 at 14:18
  • Marie-Lou A Even your comments are being deleted.I do not think it is a question for ElL.we can not ask good questions all the time.Yes I have a problem with formating.I wil over come the problem soon Aug 26, 2019 at 14:22
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    Jagatha V L Narasimharao: unless you learn that not everything we read / hear / yes, even think ... is inerrant, you will encounter vast problems. 6 results for the typo 'Seth Lind Stromberg' in a Google search, but 18 000 (rounded) for the accurate 'Seth Lindstromberg'. And though not all may agree with everything posted here by DJClayworth, he is a respected and scholarly contributor here. Aug 26, 2019 at 16:41
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    I do not think SethLindstromberg is "wrong" in the sense of having made a mistake. I think he is providing a simple rule for English teachers to give their students to help them decide if "on" or "on top of" is best. It works most of the time. But since the question then asks about more advanced usages, I provided an answer that I believe more accurately explains when a native English speaker would use 'on top of". I hope that Seth Lindstromberg would not disagree with me. Aug 26, 2019 at 17:00

1 Answer 1


Using "on" for flat things and "on top of" for tall things is not a hard and fast rule. It may be attempting to provide a starting point for people new to English, but it does not apply in all cases. You could say "the loudspeaker is on the speaker stand" even though the speaker stand is very tall and thin. Also "The book is on the stool".

Lindstromberg writes (page 231) in his advice on teaching prepositions: "Demonstrate or draw, for example, 'on the paper' and 'on top of the bottle'. Show that we can also say 'on the bottle', but add that on top of is what we often say for tall things.". The key word is "often". Native speakers do often say that, but it is a not a rule, and not what exclusively determines the use of "on top of". Lindstromberg is not trying to explain definitively the use prepositions, he is writing about how to effectively teach the general use of prepositions.

A better way to think about this is that "on top of" is used mainly where "on" might have an unclear meaning. With the case of the paper, "on the paper" might well mean "drawn on the paper", so if there is any danger of confusion you say "on top of". But if someone asks "where did I leave my pen" you can say "your pen is on the paper" without any danger of confusion, so you do.

Likewise "the label is on the bottle" generally means it is attached to the bottle on its flat vertical side. If the label is really resting on the top of the bottle, you would use "on top of" to avoid confusion. This is probably where your author gets his rule from. Many tall thin things can have objects "on" their sides (like a label on a bottle), so if you want to make it clear that the label is sitting on the top of the bottle you would say "on top of".

To answer your specific question, it is grammatically correct to say "the pen is on top of the paper", but most English speakers would not use it unless there was a possibility of being misunderstood. If you were referring to a picture resting on the paper you might say "the picture is on top of the paper" to distinguish from the case where the picture might be drawn on the paper. If the pen was right at the top of a big pile of paper you might say "the pen is on top of the paper" to distinguish it from the case where the pen is on some other part of the pile.

TLDR: Use "on top of" when "on" might be misunderstood. Or possibly for emphasis.

  • The Journal is not meant for the learners of English, it is used by the reputed Instititutes like The English and Foreign language University.Besides, Seth Lind Stormberg is a reputed Native English speaker and writer of many books and articles Aug 26, 2019 at 15:57
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    I have no explanation for what he wrote, but the rule you quote is definitely wrong. English speakers do not say "on top of something" just because the something is tall and thin. They might say it if the thing normally has things "on" it that are somewhere other than the top, but that is not the same thing. maybe you could quote the entire passage of the article where you found this rule? Aug 26, 2019 at 16:15
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    I'm a native British English speaker. Also you should be clear that there are no definitive rules for speaking English (unlike French). If you wish to follow some rules that someone has made up, go ahead, but don't expect to sound like a native speaker when you do. Aug 26, 2019 at 16:40
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    @EdwinAshworth Thanks for that. The situation is exactly what I thought. Lindstromberg writes: "Demonstrate or draw, for example, 'on the paper' and 'on top of the bottle'. Show that we can also say 'on the bottle', but add that on top of is what we often say for tall things.". The key word is "often". We do "often" say that, but it is not a rule. Aug 26, 2019 at 17:19
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    @Edwin Ashworth.I did not say that it was a rule.I used the word usually.It means often or more than often .I think some of the native speakers have a tendency to look down upon the non native speakers instead of encoraging them.Infact, English is a language of fewer rules and more exceptions. Aug 26, 2019 at 17:32

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