Let’s Get Rid of Onto

Let's Get Rid of OntoThere 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:

Writers and printers should make up their minds whether there is such a preposition as onto or not; if there is not, they should omit the to

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.”

11 thoughts on “Let’s Get Rid of Onto

  1. You’ll never convince the mathematicians. They’ve given “onto” a very precise meaning regarding operation of functions, and they ain’t going back.

    • Ah, yes. I didn’t talk about that. It’s big in set theory. I’m fine with that. That’s jargon. They can do what they want. I’m just looking for things to make my life easier. And if a math journal hires me to edit, I’ll jump on board!

      • Yeah, I was going to bring up surjectivity (which is the same as “onto” but derived from the french “sur,” because why have one confusing word for something when you can have two!). In that case, onto specifically means it covers the entire target set. x^2 maps the real numbers into themselves, but 2x maps the set onto itself because it hits every possible real number. Were we to translate that into everyday language, you could say that a pepper shaker is placed on a table, but a table cloth is placed onto a table because it covers the entire table. I don’t know if it makes sense to do that in everyday language, though. It would probably just confuse people.

  2. Horrible brainstorm — here’s a new play idea for you to puzzle on. It’s called “Syntax.”

    I love the title, because it’s a triple entendre about Tom Paine.

    1: Great writer. Syntax.
    2: Early in his career, he was a British excise offer collecting taxes on booze. Sin tax.
    3: Fucked himself over by writing his book against organized religion (not against sincere faith!) Another sin tax.

    Have at it, Mr. Writer! Yes, I adore that actor who does his one-man Paine show to educate audiences; he’s a treasure. But you gotta admit: a triple entendre is pretty cool.

    Also, I hate all my writing now, and wanna inflict that pain on every other writer. You care! You try to deal with incredibly complex subjects! Fuck that noise! GIMME TWITTER RETWEETS!

    To be less bleak, here is a great Petty song that’s a triple entendre. Floodwaters rising. Improving a failing relationship. And, Petty likes him some weed. Hence, “A Higher Place.” Well done, Mr. Petty! Triple entendres are friggin’ badass.

    • There is this guy who does a Thomas Paine one-man show:

      But there is the same problem writing about Paine that one would have writing about me: he evolved a lot over the years. But if I were to write something of him, it would focus on how he was kind of an intellectual Che Guevara. But given that my current play deals with a theater company that goes to war with itself over the meaning of the work, I might be able to integrate both Paine and Guevara. Maybe I could have Trotsky with an ax in his skull wandering the stage in a daze the whole play.

      I have chosen not to comment on your puns. :-)

      • And the Che Guevara movie was pretty lame. Good cast, well acted. Hard to write and make it have a dramatic arc. How do you dramatize personal growth?

        Yeah, that’s the solo show guy I was thinking of. He’s wonderful. But his show is mostly educational. Tom Paine deserves to be more successful than “Hamilton.” He deserves the spotlight. (And I liked “Hamilton” the soundtrack, if not the man himself.)

        OTOH, Paine always knew he was courting danger with his writing. And wrote it anyway. So maybe it’s appropriate that the best show about him is done by a devoted actor with little public attention. That’s the way the man lived, that’s the way he’s remembered today. A handful of people took then, and take now, the concept of America (and what it could be) seriously. For most it’s just a team logo.

        You reject my puns? Pistols at dawn, sir. I consider puns to be the highest form of writing I can manufacture. Just like our friend Shakes, whose puns are unintelligible today. I don’t plan on being around for 500 years, so I’m perfectly happy with puns.

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