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Should the single word onto or the two words on to be used here?

She held onto the cushion instead of holding onto the metal frame.
She was grabbing onto the seat cushion.
There's nothing saying what hand to use to hold onto any portion of the helicopter, and what part of the helicopter not to hold onto while getting in.

  • Ngrams shows that "onto" is a relatively new contraction in English, and that its usage isn't completely stabilized yet. – Peter Shor Jul 2 '14 at 18:44
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    'After passing through Ipswich they continued on to Norwich'. (Definitely not 'onto') But 'He lifted the heavy box onto the table' sounds as if 'onto' would work. – WS2 Jul 2 '14 at 23:37
  • @PeterShor It's certainly not a contraction. On to and onto are totally different. – Black and White Jul 24 '17 at 18:12
  • @Sebasian: Before around 1800, everybody wrote on to and onto was not used. After 1800, some people started writing onto for some uses where they'd previously written on to. In 1822, an author actually felt compelled to defend his use of onto in a footnote. That sounds like a contraction to me. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '17 at 18:24
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    There's only one situation in which both could be considered to be all right, but otherwise, there's normally only one correct choice. – Black and White Jul 28 '17 at 3:31
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My English teacher at school was adamant that on to was always two words, a position which is acknowledged by ODO:

The preposition onto written as one word (instead of on to) is recorded from the early 18th century and has been widely used ever since, but is still not wholly accepted as part of standard British English (unlike into, for example). Many style guides still advise writing it as two words, and that is the practice followed in this dictionary. However, onto is more or less the standard form in US English and in the specialized mathematics sense. Nevertheless, it is important to maintain a distinction between the preposition onto or on to and the use of the adverb on followed by the preposition to: she climbed on to (or onto) the roof but let’s go on to (not onto) the next point.

In British English, it’s always safe to separate on to; in American English, onto would appear to be acceptable in almost all circumstances.

If onto can be one word in the examples given, one has to decide whether on can be classed as an adverb with to as the preposition, or whether onto is an acceptable preposition in its own right.

In Burchfield’s New Fowler’s Modern English Usage he quotes Fowler from 1926:

Fowler (1926) added ... examples of on used as a full adverb before to and therefore written separately: We must walk on to Keswick; Each passed it on to his neighbour; Struggling on to victory. In He played the ball on to his wicket, he judged that “as He played on could stand by itself, it is hard to deny on its independent status”. It should also be noted that They drove on to the beach would normally mean “They continued their journey until they reached the beach” but could also mean ”They drove their vehicle to a position on the beach”; whereas They drove onto the beach could only mean ”They drove their vehicle to a position on the beach”.

With hold on, the on has Fowler’s “independent status”, and there is no sense of movement as there is with driving “onto a beach”. Indeed, the act of holding on to something is precisely to steady oneself and prevent movement! Hold on to is therefore appropriate.

In the second example [“grabbed onto the cushion”], with the verb grab on the to is needed (so on is not independent), and there may even be a sense of movement with a sudden taking-hold of the cushion. Grab onto might therefore be appropriate.

That said, customary forms in different dialects of English may dictate a different use. Grab onto looks decidedly wrong to my British eyes, conditioned as they are, even though I’ve argued fairly successfully from Fowler [a respected British authority] that it’s reasonable; and hold on to may look decidedly wrong to American eyes.

  • This one sure snuck up on me. I was sure it wasn’t right and was trying to edit it out of some text written by others. But apparently people push things “onto” stacks, or latch “onto” phrases, or release things “onto” a server for redistribution, or force a cast “onto” an argument. It all still looks funny to me, but since it is apparently quite common, it’s funny that I think it funny. Odd. – tchrist Jul 3 '14 at 7:30
  • @tchrist He's actually wrong. On to is correct for all of them. – Black and White Jul 24 '17 at 17:50
  • No, we latch on to phrases. – Black and White Jul 24 '17 at 17:51
  • Also, the word on is unnecessary in your sentence. Release this to a server for redistribution. – Black and White Jul 24 '17 at 17:56
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    I do say that on to is always correct. But that doesn't mean that onto is necessarily incorrect. Arguments can be made for both points of view, even if I do not wholly agree with Fowler. – Andrew Leach Jul 24 '17 at 17:56
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In the first and third sentences, use “on to” (two separate words) because the verb is the idiom hold on, meaning “to maintain a grasp on something” or simply “to grasp”.  Fusing “on to” into “onto” would break the idiom and leave you with the dictionary definition of “on”, which doesn’t fit your contexts.  But I don’t see your second example as being right either way.

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TLDR: People spell this two different ways because they pronounce it two different ways. And trying to convince people to spell it "hold on to" when they pronounce it "hold onto" is a losing battle, so you might as well not even bother trying.

I think I've figured out what's going on here. Namely, I think I've figured out why writing he held onto the rope is so common, and why people are arguing about it so much.

Consider the examples:

I drove on to the next town.
I drove onto the pier.

In these sentences, I pronounce on to slightly differently from onto: onto is a single word with the first syllable stressed, while in on to, the two words which have roughly equal stress.

However, in the sentence

I held onto the bannisters,

I pronounce onto in the same way as in I drove onto the pier, despite the fact that hold on is a phrasal verb. However, some people pronounce this sentence as if on and to were different words. Listen to Forvo.

I would guess that, in general, people are distinguishing between on to and onto by their pronunciations. You're not going to get people to change their pronunciation. And trying to get people to spell hold on to in a way they don't pronounce it is clearly a losing battle.

Which is correct? Clearly, for pronunciation, both alternatives should be considered correct. But in writing, I would suggest using hold on to. While normally, I'd suggest going by the pronunciation, that doesn't help here because it's pronounced both ways. And there are enough people who get upset at hold onto that you might as well make them happy. However, I also think it's pointless trying to get people who pronounce it hold onto to spell it hold on to. So, to avoid arguments, both spellings should be considered correct.

  • If anything, you only gave evidence proving why on to is right. – Black and White Jul 28 '17 at 21:30
  • @SebastianPojman: The reasonable argument is that I put the box onto the table is pronounced the same as I held on to the rope, but differently from he went on to become famous. So if you believe that words are defined by their pronunciation, and not by their semantics, it should be held onto. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '17 at 0:34
  • Nobody writes went onto become, because it's pronounced differently, but lots of people write grab onto the. See Ngram and Ngram. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '17 at 0:34
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    @Sebastian: I'm not trying to say he held onto the rope is correct. I'm trying to explain why lots of people write he held onto the rope, and nobody writes he went onto become famous. – Peter Shor Jul 29 '17 at 0:57
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    The cat jumped onto the couch as the professor went on to his next point..... – Lambie Jun 20 '18 at 14:59
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The answer is on to in all of them because grab on and hold on are phrasal verbs. Also, there are general tricks that mostly work for the "onto/on to" sentences.

  1. You can replace "onto" with upon.
  2. It (sort of) works with only the "on."
  3. You can add "up" or "down" before the "onto."

These tricks don't make sense with these examples, so that's another point for two words. In the end, here are the correct sentences.

She held on to the cushion instead of holding on to the metal frame. She was grabbing on to the seat cushion. There's nothing saying what hand to use to hold on to any portion of the helicopter, and what part of the helicopter not to hold on to while getting in.

DISCLAIMER: There really are no real sources for those tricks. They've been around for a long time, so just trust me.

  • How are my answers ALWAYS downvoted?? – Black and White Jul 24 '17 at 2:13
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    Because all the people who incorrectly use hold onto rather than hold on to feel offended by your calling their language ungrammatical? – Peter Shor Jul 24 '17 at 18:31
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    In this case simply because it's factually incorrect. There is no such distinction as that which you mention, a fact supported by your own failure to produce any sources in corroboration. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 17 '17 at 9:19
  • Phrasal verbs have nothing to do with it: move in is a phrasal verb, and you say I moved into my new house last week, not moved in to. – Peter Shor Jun 20 '18 at 4:56

protected by tchrist Apr 17 '17 at 3:48

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