On top of the world

This is the first in a series of posts about prepositions of location — demonstrated by our cats! (because everyone loves cute cat pictures, right?)

This is Mojo, the nicest of our seven cats, and in this picture he’s on top of the world — literally!

a cat sitting on a globe box

On top of the world is an idiom that means “extremely happy” — and, yes, Mojo’s always a very happy cat. I said literally, though, which means I’m not using the phrase as an idiom. Literally means that each word has its original meaning. It’s not an idiom, metaphor, or exaggeration. There’s a globe of the world, and Mojo is actually sitting on top of it.

I’m sure all of you know the classic Carpenters song “Top Of The World.” The meaning of the song is very simple: I’m extremely happy because you love me.

(By the way, the Carpenters sing “I’m on the top of the world” because it fits the music better, but usually we don’t say “the top.”)

1. Contrasting on top of, on, and at the top of

On top of is very similar to on, but the meaning is more specific. On means “resting on or connected to the surface of….” It could be the top, side, or bottom surface. We can also use on to talk about marks on a surface, or about the clothes a person is wearing. Look at these examples.

  • Mojo is on the box.
  • There’s a light switch on the wall.
  • There’s a picture of a globe on the box.
  • Mojo has stripes on his body.
  • Mojo’s collar is very stylish. It looks good on him!
  • There’s a bell on his collar.

On top of means, more specifically, “resting on the top surface of….” In the six examples above, only the first one could use on top of.

If you mean “on or in the top part of…,” you should use the phrase at the top of.

  • Please write your name at the top of the test paper.
  • His office is at the top of a 12-story building.

2. Special uses of on top of

In addition to the literal meaning, on top of can mean “in addition to.”

  • On top of going to college full-time, he also works at a local restaurant.
  • I got a nice bonus last month on top of my regular salary.

It can also mean that you are in control of a situation, or that your information is up to date.

  • We’re having a few technical difficulties, but don’t worry. Our staff are on top of the situation and should have everything running properly soon.
  • Doctors need to read medical journals to stay on top of the latest research.

English can be complicated sometimes, but I hope these posts are helping you keep on top of it. What preposition will we talk about next? Well, it all depends on what my cats decide to do!

Eton Royal English School
Phone: (04)727-2177
E-mail: eton.changhua@gmail.com
Facebook: @etonenglish


All hat and no cattle

“He’s all hat and no cattle.” If you say that about someone, it means he’s full of big talk but doesn’t really do anything, or he pretends to be more powerful or important than he really is. The original meaning is that he dresses like a cowboy or a rancher (the owner of a big cattle farm), with a cowboy hat, but he doesn’t actually own any cattle.

All hat and no cattle

  • The mayor is great at giving speeches, but he hasn’t really improved anything in our city. He’s all hat and no cattle.
  • A lot of job applicants have impressive resumes, but we need to interview them carefully to be sure they really have the skills we need. We don’t want to hire someone who’s all hat and no cattle.

English has a lot of idioms with the same meaning, mostly in the form “all .. and no ….” Here are a few others:

  • all show and no substance
  • all talk and no action
  • all bark and no bite
  • all sizzle and no steak (“sizzle” is the sound steak makes when it’s cooking)

A note about cattle

“Cattle” means 牛, but it is only plural. You can say “he has a lot of cattle,” but you can’t talk about “a cattle.” If you want to use a number with the word “cattle,” you normally use the word “head” as a quantifier (for example, “500 head of cattle”). In this way, English is very similar to Chinese (五百頭牛).

If you want to talk about one 牛, there are several different words you can use.

  • cow is an adult female. We get milk from cows. Sometimes “cow” is used in a general way to talk about cattle of either sex.
  • bull is an adult male. Cows are calm, slow-moving animals, but bulls are aggressive and violent, so the feeling of the two words is very different. Don’t say “cow” if you mean “bull”! For example, in Spain people like to watch bullfights, but a “cowfight” would be pretty boring.
  • steer is a castrated (閹割) bull, usually raised for meat. The beef we eat comes from steers.
  • An ox (plural oxen) is also a castrated bull, but it is used for work, not for meat. Wild cattle of both sexes are also called “oxen” sometimes.
  • calf is a baby cow or bull.

Eton Royal English School
Phone: (04)727-2177
E-mail: eton.changhua@gmail.com
Facebook: @etonenglish