How to Choose Between “Into” or “Onto” and Their Two-Word Forms

By Mark Nichol

Into, or “in to”? Onto, or “on to”?

Into and onto are prepositions, words that describe relative position. They are part of prepositional phrases, such as “She settled herself into her seat” or “He climbed onto the roof.” These words are forward looking, in that, as their grammatical name implies, they are positioned before the object.

“In to” and “on to,” on the other hand, are combinations of an adverb (in or on) and the preposition to. Unlike the single-word forms, they look both backward (in and on refer to a preceding verb) and forward (to pertains to the following object).

Of the distinctions between each pair, that distinguishing into from “in to” is more straightforward. If you wish to write that you went somewhere to let a representative of a company know you are disappointed with a product or service, you can express that idea using either form. But if you write, “I walked into the office to lodge a complaint,” the sentence focuses on the prepositional phrase “into the office.” If you write, “I walked in to lodge a complaint,” the emphasis is the phrase describing the action: “I walked in.”

Onto and “on to” can be more confusing, but think of the problem this way: “She drove onto the highway” means, “She drove so that she was on the highway.” Conversely, “She drove on to the highway” means, “She headed for the highway.” The two-word form is also appropriate for figurative meanings, where no physical movement or placement exists — for example, “I think you’re really on to something.”

Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to test whether onto or “on to” is correct — temporarily insert the word up after the verb, or, just for the test, replace the word or the phrase with the word on:

The “Up” Test
When you wish to write that you used a ladder, could you write, “I climbed up onto the ladder”? Yes, you could, so onto is correct. When you want to express that you clutched something, could you write, “I held up on my hat”? No, the sentence does not make sense, so the two-word form (“I held on to my hat”) is the right one in this case.

The “On” Test
When you wish to write that you scaled a boulder, could you write, “I climbed on a boulder”? Yes, you could, so onto is correct. When you want to express that you bequeathed something, would you write, “I passed it on him”? No, that doesn’t make sense, so the two-word form (“I passed it on to him”) is correct here.

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21 Responses to “How to Choose Between “Into” or “Onto” and Their Two-Word Forms”

  • Chris

    This one has been confusing for me at times, so it’s helpful to have your “up” and “on” tests.

    With your “into” example, the “in to” case has “to” being part of an infinitive, not a preposition. I’m struggling to think of examples of sentences where “in” is followed by the preposition “to” (not an infinitive) where it would not be appropriate to use “into.”

    The only one that comes to mind at the moment has to do with using websites: signing in, logging in, etc. “He signed on to facebook.” “He logged in to his banking website.” It’s been unclear to me in the past whether it should be “logged in to his banking website” or “logged into his banking website.” I prefer the former. Any thoughts?

  • Linda

    Thank you for this article. Into is very confusing.

    Here are some sentences: “She went in to the garage.” “She went inside the garage. Take this in to the house. Take this inside the house. I assumed the correct word was in to.
    I assumed if one coud say, inside, then the word is in to. She went in to the garage.

    To transform: Night turns into day. The cat turned into a mouse.

    The bird flew up and in to the tree and went in to his nest. (inside)
    They marched into battle. (they don’t go inside the battle.

    This is how I sorted it out. Is this incorrect?
    Thank you.
    Linda

  • John Sungail

    After I enter my user name and password, do I log on, logon, log in or log into the web site? That has always bugged me!

    Thanks,
    John

  • resu

    “log in” is a phrasal verb, so I think the only correct option is “logged in to his website”

  • Diane Martin

    The differentiation between “onto” and “on to”, etc., has been obvious to me for quite some time…usually when I run across it in print form being used incorrectly. Yet others never seemed to understand when I’d point it out to them. I had not thought about “onto” and “into” being prepositions. That clears it up! Thanks for unfogging my brain!

  • Mark Nichol

    Chris:

    “Logged in to” is the correct form, because “logging in” is the established phrase that you are combining with the preposition to. Another example is, “They gave in to the demands.”

  • Shyxter

    Hi, Mark! Thank you for this article. Sometimes, I just interchange the single-word and the two-word forms. The UP and ON tests are very helpful and I still have to master these tests so I can really use the words properly. It gets a little confusing at times but I hope I’ll get the hang of it soon.

  • Mark Nichol

    Linda:

    “She went into (entered) the garage,” but, “She went in to (approached) the counter.”

    “Take this into (inside) the house,” but “Take this in to (bring this to) your mother.”

    Into,” not “in to,” is the equivalent of inside.

    Therefore, “The bird flew up and into the tree and went into his nest,” and, actually, “They marched into battle” means that they entered, or went inside, the battle.

    Turns or turned is accompanied by into unless the meaning is different: “Turn this in to your teacher.”

  • Steven Wong

    Hello. Thanks for the explanation. However, is there a difference as to when I can use “into” and when to use “onto”?

    Which is correct? Her name was placed onto the list. Or, her name was placed into the list.

  • Gen Caruso

    Here’s a question. Which is correct? They got into the bus, or onto the bus? In conversation, it seems that we typically say, “We better get on the bus,” or, “The mother watched her young son get onto the bus.” However, when you think about it, we aren’t getting ‘on’ the bus, we are getting in it! I can’t seem to find an answer to this, and need it to edit something, so anyone who may know, please help!
    Thanks.

  • Mark Nichol

    Gen:

    “On the bus” is correct. Perhaps it’s because buses were originally open vehicles — but then so were cars. Another possibility is that they were associated with other large conveyances, like ships and trains.

  • Gen Caruso

    Thanks, that makes sense.

    However, I’m still not 100% clear. What is the correct form for the following sentence? “They made it safely into the bathroom.”

    Back to my example with the bus, I have trouble distinguishing between the use of ‘in,’ verses ‘on,’ and ‘into,’ verses ‘onto,’ in a situation such as that. Because I can’t think of another example, at the moment, I’m going back to the sentence about the bus. Had it read, “We got in the bus,” I still wouldn’t have known, for sure, if in or on was correct.

    Here are two more examples:

    She was stuck into place. (I changed this to in place)
    Josh grabbed her arm and pulled her in the hall. (This I changed to into the hall)

    Am I correct?

    Thanks

  • Mark Nichol

    Gen:

    Your two examples are correct; if the reference is to place in general (“held in check,” “march in place”), the proper preposition is in. If the reference is to a specific location (“in the doorway,” “in the garage”), into is the right word.

    The use of in or on is determined by whether the structure or conveyance is closed (“in the room,” “in the car”) or open (“on the stage,” “on the deck”). Of course, as in the case of bus, there are exceptions.

  • Gen Caruso

    Thanks so much!

  • Gen Caruso

    Sorry, I have another one. “I was frozen to the spot.” Is this correct? It just doesn’t sound right.

    Thanks again.

  • Gen Caruso

    Regarding the above, is ‘on’ the correct word to use? It doesn’t sound right either, but ‘to’ implies toward, which isn’t right here. On implies position, which makes more sense, but “I was frozen on the spot,” sounds odd also.

    It’s likely that the sentence itself is just strange!

    Thank U

  • Mark Nichol

    Steven:

    A list is a surface, so one’s name is put on it, not in it. However, in can be associated with names in other idioms, such as “I’ll put your name in” (for consideration to membership or nomination).

  • Mark Nichol

    Gen:

    “Frozen to the spot” is correct but awkward. I would write “glued to the spot” or “rooted to the spot,” or “frozen in place.”

  • Gen Caruso

    Thanks Mark,

    I agree, there are lots of awkward phrases, that just don’t flow right.

    I’m editing a book, which is why I ask all these questions, and because so many phrases sound so odd!

    Thanks again.

  • Thomas

    Which one is correct?
    1. Perform transaction INTO UBS system.
    2. Perform transaction ONTO UBS system. 

  • Maggie Ponds

    INTO always meant the same as INSIDE to me but not UNTO. UNTO sounds more like someone went near something or someone – THEN if the door opens, you go INSIDE (inside your heart, soul, door, etc.). Don’t let that evil thing inside you. You can get away if it walks unto you. Does this sound nuts?

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