Word Confusion: On vs. On To vs Onto

Posted January 16, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

This word confusion between on to and onto is as bad as In vs In To vs Into and always sends me clicking to “On vs. On To vs Onto” to work through which one is correct. Every. Single. Time.

Exploring Each of the Three


Oh, on is easy enough. Let’s move on, people. Hey, can you put that on the table? I put it on the dresser. But then you come to on to and onto…what do you do with those?

On To

Well, first know that on + to is actually a conglomeration of parts of grammar: technically an adverb + a preposition as part of a verb phrase. So the adverb on is actually part of the verb, i.e., move on, get on, go on, anything that fits its definition of onward and forward. The to is a preposition which may be strictly a preposition or it could be part of an infinitive, i.e., to ride, to drive, to swim, to blow up…anything that’s a to + a verb.


As for onto, it’s strictly a one-word preposition, but it looks as though it could be divided up using the idea of on + to‘s reasoning. EXCEPT, onto generally applies to real objects (if you ignore the detective who has picked up some clues!). Compare the examples for both, and you’ll notice that on to is more abstract whereas onto is much more solid with pavement, beds, and boxes.


Gabriele has a useful post on on to vs. onto at Transparent.com, which provides more examples of the differences.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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On On  To Onto
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Using English, Free Dictionary; Oxford Dictionaries

Image courtesy of Wired

Liat Clark’s post, “Google brain simulator identifies cats on YouTube“, uses this photo of a cat on a keyboard.

Image courtesy of Forbes

Jenna Goudreau’s post on “Why Have Kids? Exposing The Motherhood Paradox

Image courtesy of The Guardian

Ed Pilkington’s post, “Haitians flee shattered, barren city for new life in countryside

Part of Grammar:
Phrasal Verb, i.e.,

[verb + adverb, on](on is part of the verb)
preposition, to

To may be part of an:

  • infinitive
  • preposition

Preposition + object
Functioning, in operation, working, in use

At (great) length, for ages, hours, constantly, continuously, without pause, without letup, eternally, etc.

Resting on, supported by, touching the (upper) surface of

Onward and toward Move to a position that is on

Become aware of a secret or something illegal

Make contact with something or someone

The computer’s on.

Turn the oven on, please.

The professor droned on and on.

The crowd moved on.

Your purse is on the hood of my car.

Put the cushion on the chair.

They moved on to deal with other things.

Mary went on to achieve greatness.

We looked over the crafts exhibit and then moved on to the fine art.

Let’s move on to the next point.

Those who qualify can go on to college.

She ran onto the pavement.

The detective was onto something.

They went up onto the ridge.

The police are onto us

You’ll have to get onto the factory about this.

We got onto the moving train.

The child jumped onto the bed.

Indicating that the child was not yet on the bed jumping.

Move those boxes onto the shelf.

You know, the boxes that aren’t yet on the shelf…

Abbreviation: ON
Adjective: on-air, on-off, on-road, on-site, on-topic, ongoing, online, onshore, onstage
Adverb: on-air, on-site, on-topic, online, onshore, onstage
Noun: on-ramp
Suffix: -on, codon, interferon, ion, neutron, photon, etc.
Verb, transitive: onshore,
History of the Word:
First known use: before 12th century

Middle English an, on, preposition and adverb, from Old English; akin to Old High German ana, meaning on, Greek ana, meaning up, on.

Sometime in the 1500s. First known use: 1581

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Light Bulb” — Dickbauch~commonswiki assumed and “Shopper” — Jobsearch~commonswiki assumed (neither has a machine-readable author provided and are based on copyright claims); both are in the public domain. “Hook & Climb” is USCG MSRT’s own work under theCC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL license. All are via Wikimedia Commons.