There are a lot of words that bug me. Take, for example, “anyway.” On online Oxford Dictionary has a bit of a problem with this word, providing definitions like “Used to confirm or support a point or idea just mentioned.” The word itself is more of an interjection than anything. You wouldn’t, for example, write, “There isn’t anyway to get this done in time.” “Anyway” does not mean “any way.” That’s all pretty easy to understand in the case of this word. Things get much more difficult with the word “onto.” Oh, how I hate that word!
The word “onto” indicates that two objects meet. “They placed a cup onto a table.” (These is the less common construct, “I’m onto you!” But let us leave that aside.) We use “on to” when “on” is part of a verbal phrase. “After drinking the tea, they moved on to placing the cup onto the kitchen counter.” As you can see, in this form, the “on” really belongs to “moved.” So it would make much more sense to write “movedon to” than “moved onto.” (Obviously, there are cases where this ins’t true, “The cup was moved onto the table.”)
“On to” Is as Good as “Onto”
The problem with all of this is that there is no need for it. It is only fairly recently that “onto” was considered a word. And in England, it is still common for people to use “on to” where we Yankees use “onto.” And since I am always in favor of making writing easier when it comes to these annoying little matters, I see no reason for us not to jettison “onto,” use “on to” all the time, and never again give it a thought. Note that it absolutely doesn’t work the other way around: we can’t always use “onto.”
Back in 1926, Fowler made a great point:
Why Not Get Rid of the “to”?
For example, why not, “They placed a cup on a table.” Is the “to” necessary? No. And there aren’t that many cases where it is. The “to” is kind of a linguistic tic. I doubt if I stopped using it that anyone would notice. But by now, it’s a habit. So I’m just going to get rid of “onto” and leave it at that. I’ll see if I can train myself to get rid of the “to.” One thing’s certain: it will be easier to get rid of the “to” if it isn’t attached to the “on.”
Note that everything I’ve said about “onto” applies to “into.” The problem is that “into” is so much better established that one would end up looking foolish if they wrote, “He slipped it in to his pack.” At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with that. And again, we could instead write, “He slipped it in his pack.” I’ll leave this fight to the more courageous among us. My fight ends (at least for now) with “onto.”