speech, we often use on and onto or
on to interchangeably. We ignore the nuance
between onto and on to especially
because there is little audible difference between
the two. However, these three prepositions (or
combination of prepositions in the case of on to)
should be used deliberately in different syntactical
situations because each of the prepositions means
First, remember that a preposition is a word that
precedes a noun or pronoun and relates that noun to
another word in the sentence. For example, the
preposition over in “Birds can fly over
trees” establishes a spatial relationship between
birds and trees, explaining where birds can
fly. Now let’s look at the three prepositions in
On is a preposition that signals a position of
contact with the supporting surface of something.
Though on can take on various idiomatic
meanings unique to the English language, such as “turn
on the TV” or “take on” in this very
sentence, this grammar tip focuses on its use0 as
a preposition that establishes physical
relationships by denoting literal contact.
Hint: In most cases, you can replace on
with on top of or in position on to
create a helpful mental picture. If one of these
phrases works as a logical substitute in the
sentence, then on is the correct preposition
Ex. Heather thought the new suit looked bulky on
her fiancé, but she did not tell him.
(The suit is in position on Heather’s fiancé;
he is wearing it; it covers his body.)
Ex. The defendant placed her hand on the
Bible’s cover before testifying to swear to tell the
(The defendant’s hand is resting on top of
the cover; she is touching the book’s surface.)
Onto is a preposition that signals movement to a
position on something. It is most useful when
describing actions that change the physical
relationship between two things. It should be read
as literally as possible.
Hint: Ask yourself the following question about
the nouns linked by the preposition onto: 1)
From where does this noun move? and 2) To
the surface of what does it move? This strategy
may require adding nouns for clarity in places where
they are omitted.
Ex. Calvin lost his usual debonair composure as he
battled the wind to get the hat onto his
From where does Calvin move the hat? From
his hands. 2. To the surface of what does
he move it? To his head, as the wind
tries to blow it away.)
Ex. The customer jumped onto the counter and yelled,
“I want a refund!”
From where does the customer jump? From
the ground. 2. To the surface of what
does he jump? To the counter, to make his
Let's compare on and onto briefly in
the examples below.
Ex. Jill skated on the ice. (Logical)
Rephrase: Jill skated around on top of
Ex. Jill skated onto the ice. (Logical)
Rephrase: Jill skated out onto
the surface of the ice from the waiting area.
Notice that both on and onto are
correct in the examples, but the sentences have
different meanings--they suggest different versions
of Jill's actions.
On to is a combination of two prepositions,
on, which we looked at above, and to,
a preposition that signals movement or an action or
condition suggesting movement toward something that
is reached. Different than onto, on to
has a less restrictive spatial meaning and, in fact,
is often a more abstract indicator of progress or
motion. On usually is tied to its preceding
verb as an idiomatic expression (making on an
adverb) and to carries the progressive
Hint: Ask yourself whether you could
use the verb + on combination separately from
the word to in a speaking situation. If so,
they should remain separate.
Ex. We started with appetizers, then moved on to
the main course.
is common to hear a statement like “We moved on
after the appetizers.” Then you can ask, “To
what?” “To the main course.” The verb + on
combo can stand independently of to.)
Ex. Before you go on to bigger adventures,
will you take some time to relax at home?
(Again, see whether you can break up the idiom and
the to: “You are going to go on.” “To
what?” “To bigger adventures.”)
Since we've studied both onto and on to,
let's look at a set of examples and, by using the
"hints" above, determine whether onto or
on to would be the appropriate choice.
Most theater majors move onto professional
acting schools. (Illogical) Reason:
Likely, theater majors who go to acting schools do
not take up residence on top of them.
Most theater majors move on to professional
acting schools. (Logical) Rephrase:
Theater majors move on after their
undergraduate years, usually to professional
Stevens is a 2009 graduate of Rice University with a
degree in English. She has worked at the Academic Center
before. She will be teaching English in Namibia for two
years before returning to write a memoir, because who
doesn't these days? For now, she is content to read them,
among other books, and to study and discuss all things
Hodges, John C., Winifred B. Horner, Suzanne S. Webb, and
Robert K. Miller. Harbrace College Handbook. 13th ed. Fort
Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.
Merriam Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2007.
Preposition – a word
preceding a noun or pronoun that relates the noun to another word in
Idiom – an expression of
a language peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a
meaning not derivable from the meanings of its individual elements