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Hold onto or Hold on to: Meaning, Grammar, and Proper Usage

Someone has likely asked you to hold on to something — a drink for a minute or a prized possession for longer safekeeping. But when writing, figuring when there should be a space between “on” and “to” can no doubt be confusing.  

The difference between “onto” and “on to” is that “onto” is a preposition that implies movement on top of something, to a position, or upon. It can also indicate awareness. But “on” and “to” with a space in between are two distinct words with a different meaning. In the latter case, “on” is part of a verb phrase, and “to” is a preposition. 

Continue reading to learn more about the difference a single space can make and how to use each of these words correctly in your writing. 

Which Is Correct: Hold “On To” or Hold “Onto”?

Many people aren’t sure if “hold onto” is the correct way to write the phrase or if it should be hold “on to.” You may already be able to answer this question, but we’ll break it down and review just to be sure.

If you guessed that “hold on to” is correct, you are right. The reason is that the word “hold” is an action verb. When you add “to,” what you are doing is creating that larger verb phrase. 

  1. Please hold on to the handlebars when you are learning how to ride your bike.

In the above sentence, “on to” is correct because you are not moving “up” anywhere. The verb phrase is “hold on” and “to” is the preposition that shows a connection between it and the object (handlebars). 

Here is another example:

  1. Can you hold on to this box for me until I return from vacation?

Again, there is no movement up, and there is no sense of awareness or transition. Therefore, “on to” is correct since “hold” is the connected verb and “to” is the preposition, with the object being the box.

Which Is Correct: Held “Onto” or Held “On To”

There is no difference in understanding when it comes to “hold on to” versus “held on to.”  Since both “hold on” and “held on” are each verb phrases, the correct answer here is “on to” as well. The only difference is that “held” is past tense and “hold” is present tense.

You might say something along the lines of, “I held on to the jewelry her grandmother gave her.” Using “held” instead of “hold” simply communicates the past tense of the verb rather than the present tense. Here is another example:

  1. I held on to the railing with all my might when I realized the cliff was just below. 

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Remember that “on” is again part of a verb phrase. If you were to write “onto,” it would not make sense since there is no movement up or on anything. 

“Onto” Versus “On To”: Understanding the Difference 

In English, there are many words that sound the same and yet have very different definitions.  

When you are speaking, knowing which word or phrase is the correct one may not matter very much. Nobody will know if you are mixing up “onto” and “on to” in casual conversation. But when writing, a single space or slip in spelling can make all the difference in meaning.

When it comes to understanding the difference between “onto” and “on to,” you’ll need a quick lesson on prepositions and verb phrases. 

We’ll start with the word “onto.” It is a preposition, and, in English, prepositions are important, despite the fact that they are seemingly insignificant parts of speech. We tend to hear and learn much more about nouns, adjectives, and verbs, but prepositions are equally essential.

Prepositions are words that describe a relationship between other words and parts of your sentence. In essence, they locate something in time and space, telling you where it is or when it happened (source).  

And while “onto” is a preposition, putting a space between “on” and “to” creates two separate words, one of which ends up being an adverb as part of a verb phrase and the other a preposition on its own. 

What Does “Onto” Mean?

The word “onto” is a preposition of direction; it shows that something is on top of something else or moved to a position on or upon something (source). In this context, the word also needs an object — in other words, the “something” that a person or thing is moving toward. Below are some examples:

1.     My dog jumped onto my bed.

2.     The doctor moved his tools from the box onto the operating table

3.     He placed the exam booklet onto her desk.

In each of the sentences above, “onto” is a word that indicates or shows direction or movement: “The dog jumped on top of the bed,” “The doctor changed the position of his tools,” and, in the third sentence, “He placed the exam booklet upon her desk.”  

Additionally, in each sentence, there is an object linked to the word “onto.” In the first, the object is the bed; in the second, the object is the operating table; and in the third, the object is the girl’s desk.  

The object is simply the noun or pronoun — it can also be a noun phrase or clause — that follows a preposition and gives it more meaning (source). 

An easy trick to determine if “onto” is correct or if you need “on to” instead is to replace “onto” with the word “on.” Often, we can use “on” and “onto” interchangeably.  

In the first sentence above, “My dog jumped onto my bed,” we used the word “onto,” but we could replace it with “on,” and it would still work: “My dog jumped on my bed.” The sentence still makes sense.             

How to Use Onto: Showing Awareness

The word “onto” can also indicate awareness or show that someone is fully aware of or informed about something else. This is a less common way to use the word, but you will still hear it from time to time. In this case, the object of the preposition will generally be a pronoun.  

Here are a couple of examples using “onto” to show awareness:

1.     I was onto her when she tried to lie to me about where she was.

2.     My dad was onto me, even though I thought I tricked him!

In these sentences, “onto” is still a preposition but, rather than showing direction, it shows understanding or awareness. And here, the objects are “her” and “me” respectively — both are pronouns.

How to Use Onto: Indicating a Transition

One more way that you can use the word “onto” is to show a transition from one event or activity to another. This is probably the least common way that you’ll hear or see others use the word, but it is correct in limited circumstances. 

You’ll likely only hear it in conversation rather than see it in writing, unless it is very informal or includes dialogue.

Let’s take a look:

1.     I finally finished vacuuming the entire house — onto the next chore on my list! 

2.     I finished my stretches and cardio — now, I’m onto weight lifting.

The word “onto” shows movement — not in the sense of moving an object, but rather moving from one activity to the next. 

Earlier, we said that adding a space in the midst of “onto” creates an entirely different meaning.  Next, we’ll break down “on to,” and look at how this verb phrase is different from the preposition. 

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Image by Renee Fisher via Unsplash

What Does “On To” Mean?

Unlike the preposition “onto,” adding a space results in two distinct words — “on” and “to.” And while both “on” and “to” can be prepositions by themselves, when you join them with a space in a sentence, what you are actually creating is a part of a larger verb phrase.  

A verb phrase or phrasal verb is a verb that includes either a preposition or an adverb (and sometimes both). When paired, the meaning is different from each word when taken alone (source).

That sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Below are some common examples:

Verb PhraseMeaningExplanation
Look Up
(verb + adverb)
Search for or find information“Look” is a verb, and “up” is an adverb; taken separately, these two words have distinct definitions. However, when combined, the verb phrase takes on a new meaning.
Talk About
(verb + preposition)
To discuss or converse about something“Talk” is a verb, and “about” is a preposition; taken separately, these two words also have distinct meanings. Together, the meaning is quite different.

The exact meaning of “on to” is a little bit less straightforward in that, most often, you’ll see it as part of a larger verb phrase, and you’ll need more context to define its meaning. 

When to Use “On To”

You will always use “on to” (with a space) when “on” is part of a verb phrase as an adverb and “to” by itself is the preposition. A few common examples and phrases you’ll find with “on to” are below.

  • To log on to a computer or device
  • To hold on to an item 
  • To continue on to another location

Remember, “onto” as a preposition with no space indicates movement up, on, upon, or on top of. So, while it can get a little bit tricky with verb phrases that communicate movement, simply asking yourself “how” the movement is occurring will help you to distinguish the difference.  

You can do another quick trick to make sure that you are choosing the correct word (onto) or phrase (on to). It doesn’t work with “onto” when you use it to show awareness or transition, but since those are the least common uses for the word, this will work for the most part, especially in your writing.

If you add the word “up” before “onto” in your sentence, it should make sense. If it does not, you’ll need the space to indicate a part of a verb phrase.  

  1. My kitten jumped up onto my lap.  
  2. I put the book up onto the counter.

In each of these sentences, adding the word “up” makes sense. That means that “onto” is the correct choice. Now, take a look at this example:

  1. My sister went up on to become a famous artist.

Here, adding the word “up” doesn’t quite make sense. Therefore, using “on to” is correct. The word “went” is the main verb, adding “on” creates a verb phrase, and “to” is the preposition.

How to Use “On To”: More Examples

By now, you are either feeling incredibly confident in distinguishing between “onto” and “on to,” or you may be second-guessing yourself. If it is the latter, don’t worry. It takes a little bit of practice to get the hang of this one, especially since these words are so similar.  

Below are a few more example sentences where you’ll often see and use the words “on to” as part of a larger verb phrase:

1.     Our teachers told us to log on to the computer.

2.     The museum guide led the group on to the next exhibit.

3.     I couldn’t figure out the equation, so I moved on to the next question on the test.

In the second example, “led on” is a separable phrasal verb, meaning we can insert the object between the verb and the adverb (source).

Again, remember that you will always use “on to” with a space when “on” is part of a larger verb phrase and “to” alone is the preposition. And if that doesn’t quite make sense, test it out — mentally add the word “up” before it. If it doesn’t make sense or sounds wrong, then “on to” is the correct way to write it.

Final Thoughts 

Distinguishing between “on to” and “onto” may very well be one of the trickiest grammatical nuances in the English language. Just remember to depend on a couple of tips that will help, including adding “up” beforehand or switching “onto” to “on.” 

If you’d like to learn even more about some of these confusing grammatical concepts, words, and phrases, take a look at “Per Se vs. Per Say: Which Is Correct?