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Grammar Spots! Onto v. On To

Updated on February 21, 2011

How to Use Onto and On To Correctly

The phrase on to and the word onto are not the same in meaning and are not, usually, interchangeable in a sentence.

Like most mistakes involving homophones, this is an easy one to make. We simply write down the word we think is correct because it sounds right (spell check won't help here). Fortunately, it is also an easy fix once we know what part of speech we need, based on the context of the sentence.

A few weeks ago one of the local magazines in our town ran an article titled What We Love: Our Favorite [town's name] Homes From 2010. Photos and text from the previous year's monthly coverage of highly decorated houses followed.

At the end of the article, another headline promised: And onto 2011! The writer (or editor) used the preposition "onto," which means "a movement toward another surface," instead of the two separate words "on to" to express the idea of "moving on toward" and "looking forward to" what 2011 promises in local interior decorating. I don't think the writer really meant to say, "And climbing up on 2011!"

Onto

The Right Time to Use It

If you're not sure when to use onto and you don't have time to look it up, a general rule of thumb is:

Use onto if you can add up before on.

Example:

She climbed (up) onto the ledge.

This rule tests for correctness of the use of onto, but the word up isn't necessary to meaning, and can be redundant in the sentence, as climbed describes upward motion. The sentence clearly shows movement toward another surface, as the prepositional phrase onto the ledge specifies. And keep in mind that, in general, onto is the correct preposition for the verbs climb and lift.

If adding up before on doesn't make sense in the sentence, then onto is the wrong word. Use the two words on to instead. (See more below.)

Example:

He held (up) on to his wallet in the crowded store.

Another test for the correct use of onto is if you replace it with on, the meaning of the sentence is not be affected. (Warning: the reverse doesn't work!)

Example:

Jeannie, please put the water kettle onto/on the heating element.

or

Jeannie, please put the water kettle on.

but not

Jeannie, please put the water kettle onto.

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On To

The Phrasal Verb plus the Prepositional Phrase

The two words on and to must be separated because each belongs to two separate phrases: a phrasal verb and a prepositional phrase.

A phrasal verb is a special verb form that contains a verb and a preposition. Together those words mean another word.

Example:

He held on to his wallet in the crowded store.

Held on is the phrasal verb made of the verb held and the preposition on. Together they mean gripped or clutched.

The next phrase is a prepositional phrase:"to his wallet." It tells us what he held on to, the question we automatically want answered. Together, with the second prepositional phrase in the crowded store, they make up a complete sentence.

Some other examples of phrasal verbs and prepositional phrases are:

[Please pass the offertory plate on] [to everyone in the pew].

[The teacher moved on] [to the next subject].

[I just logged on] [to my email].

The verbal phrase, using the preposition on, describes what the subject is doing. The prepositional phrase, beginning with to, supplies further detail.

In general, on to can't be substituted for onto.

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