“Onto” vs “On To” – The Difference Between the Two

onto vs on to

There are a number of words which can be confusing to those using English. Some examples include was vs were, who vs whom, and further vs farther. Another of those is ‘onto’ and ‘on to’. They look so similar, and yet they are so different. When you’re talking, nobody’s going to be looking for a space between ‘on’ and ‘to’, but when you’re writing, that little space can make the difference between correct work and an embarrassing mistake.

There’s actually quite a big difference between ‘on to’ and ‘onto’, but there’s also a really simple way to know which one of these options you should be using at any given time. We’ll first look at the reasons, and then we’ll check out the ‘cheat’ that will solve your dilemma without too much grammatical analysis. The big difference explained

When to use ‘onto’

‘Onto’ could, in many instances, be replaced with the less commonly used ‘upon’. It simply means that something landed on, was placed on top of or ended up on something else. Although you might be pardoned for thinking it to be an adverb, it’s actually a preposition. For example:

  • The frog jumped onto the stone.
  • My cat crept onto my lap.
  • I don’t know how the mayonnaise got onto my sweater.

In informal language, ‘onto’ is also used to show that you’re ‘on top of’ a situation, or well-informed:

  • I’m onto your sneaky plan!
  • I’ll be onto the next task as soon as this one is done.

When to use ‘on to’

In this instance ‘on’ is part of a phrase containing a verb and acts as an adverb, while ‘to’ is a preposition linked to an object. For example:

  • She held on to the steering wheel.
  • I will log on to your website.
  • We had to move on to the next exhibit.

‘On’ is associated with the verbs ‘held’, ‘log’ and ‘move’ in these examples, while ‘to’ links us to the object of the sentence – the steering wheel, the website or the exhibit.

An easy ‘cheat’

To save yourself from the tricky business of sentence analysis every time you have to decide whether or not you’ll use ‘on to’ or ‘onto’, try this cheat. In most cases, it will clarify which of the two you should use.

Try taking the word ‘up’ and see how it fits into the sentence if you use it before ‘on’. If it’s a good fit, ‘onto’ is likely to be the correct word choice. So, using the first of each of our sets of examples:

  • The frog jumped (up) onto the stone.
  • She held (up) on to the starring wheel.

As we can see, ‘up fits well into the first example, but doesn’t make any sense in the second. This ‘cheat’ works nine times out of ten, but there may still be times when choosing between ‘on’ and ‘onto’ can be confusing. For instance:

  • We wandered on to the football field.
  • We wandered onto the football field.

These sentences are both correct, but they have slightly different meanings. In the first example, the speaker and his companions wandered from one place to another. They didn’t necessarily end up on the football field itself, but they chose to approach it. They moved on from one place to another.

In the second example, the group of people ended up on the football field itself. This could be compared with the frog jumping (up) onto a stone. So when all else fails, analysing the meaning you are trying to convey may help you with your dilemma.

In conclusion

As insignificant as the difference between ‘onto’ and ‘on to’ may seem, there are specific instances in which one or the other will be the correct choice. Working out which of the two is correct can be achieved by analysing the sentence, by checking on meaning, or by trying the word ‘up’ before on as a cheat. If the sentence still makes sense with ‘up’ inserted, then ‘onto’ is correct.

9 comments

  1. Seriously, how can someone not know the difference between onto and on to? Were they asleep all through elementary school?

    1. There are some of us who use English as a second language, and understanding the difference between words that looked very similar can be difficult for us. Just because it’s easy for you doesn’t mean that it’s easy for other people. Maybe you should think about other people and why they might want to know the difference rather than being limited to your own experiences. There are a lot of people who didn’t go to elementary school in the US that find this information useful.

    2. Even though it might sound like a silly post I think it is great. There are so many people who still do not know how to use these 2 words and get them mixed up. It is actually quite sad to say the least, but this might help some people better understand the difference between the two words.

    3. LonelyNights: Some of us have extreme disadvantages, I’ll share mine so maybe you’ll understand. Born into a sick family and raised with daily emotional mental sexual and physical violence I barely functioned from the depths of depression. School was just another nightmare of bullies and a host of cruel teachers, both seem to have a knack for sniffing out the weak. Kindergarten third grade eighth grade writing and what I had of sophomore year history were comfortable productive times, the rest were nightmare extensions of the house. I am now in my sixties and retired from a successful business I created, a doctor’s office I helped set up then managed plus head of corporate customer relations. During the latter career I was discovered by corporate headhunters on numerous occassions accepting offers three times. Neither move was influenced by finances nor dissatisfaction with current positions, I enjoyed each very much. I moved on because my reason for stepping in had been achieved, taking a near-failing company and turning it around on an easy solid system that ran without me, my work was done. LonelyNights, I managed all that and so very much more all without prior knowledge of onto/on to, perhaps one reason was knowing the value of compassion a smile and a kind word. You may have known the difference between the two long before me yet I wonder, did you honestly know and only came to gloat like a vicious little snarky seventh grader or are you here to learn while deciding to step on a few necks to make yourself feel taller? After all this is not the usual accidental website one may find by being redirected, on the contrary it is one of deliberate choosing. So were you also simply ignorant coming for knowledge LonelyNights, I have strong doubts. You present yourself as a nasty parasite sprawled on a sheet-less stained mattress in Mommy’s basement trolling while stuffing mouthfuls of pizza in-between swilling liters of diet Mountain Dew. If your memory retained my earlier words then yes indeed I am extending you neither kindness nor compassion, I’ve yet to meet a deliberately cruel person who deserves the best of me. I’ll leave you to be annoyed by or ignore my words on yet another of your many and continuing lonely nights.

  2. Hi, i stopped by because I didn’t know the difference between onto and on to. I’m learning English so it’s not my first language. This helps me understand the difference. Thank you!

    1. Congratulations Jovita, while english is my only language I’m always amazed that others learn it in addition to one or more they already speak. If you ever find yourself struggling and the awful thought, “I’ll Never Get This!” pops into your mind stop right there. As you see yourself sweeping that sad short sentence away please tell yourself, “Miss Sara knows how well I’m doing and without knowing me is so very proud and is cheering me on”. True words for you Jovita, you and all those learning english, a language that can be so confusing even to those born to it. Happy smiles of cheer and encouragement.

  3. That little “up” trick is so helpful!! I had been confused in certain cases with on or onto and this really clarifies things for me. I’m definitely going to remember that.

    1. This is the best part of the article. When an article can give you a tip that you can actually use in everyday life to understand the difference between onto and on to, then you have come away with the benefit. This is something that I can use in the future and will help me remember the difference between the two words.

  4. When you just start to learn the language this can be something quite challenging, but at least once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. It’s a matter of studying and practice. Don’t get discouraged.

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