Direction: To, On(to), In(to)
This handout explains prepositions which express movement toward
something: to, onto, and into.
First, the prepositions will be introduced as a group. Then the special uses of each one will be discussed.
“To,” “ into,” and “onto” correspond respectively to the
prepositions of location at, in, and on. Each
pair can be defined by the same spatial relations of point, line/surface, or
area/volume. If you are unsure about the spatial relationships expressed
by these pairs of prepositions, read the first section of "Prepositions of
Location: At, On, and In"
before you begin.
The basic preposition of direction is "to."
“To” signifies orientation toward a goal.
When the goal is physical, for instance, a destination, "to"
implies movement in the direction of the goal.
e.g. Sid returned to his
the goal is not a physical place, for instance, an action, "to" marks
a verb to which it is attached as an infinitive and expresses purpose.
The preposition may occur alone or in the phrase "in order to."
e.g. Li Ling washed her dog
(in order) to rid it of fleas.
two uses can also occur together in a single sentence:
returned to school to get his books.
The other two prepositions of direction are compounds formed by adding
"to" to the corresponding prepositions of location.
The preposition of location determines the meaning of the preposition of
+ to = onto: signifies movement
toward a surface
= to = into: signifies movement
toward the interior of a volume
is part of the directional preposition "toward," and the two mean
about the same thing.)
With many verbs of motion, "on" and "in" have a
directional meaning and can be used along with "onto" and
"into." (See the sections
below for some exceptions to this rule.) This
is why "to" is inside parentheses in the title of the handout, showing
that it is optional with the compound prepositions.
Thus, the following sentences are roughly synonymous:
Tai-shing jumped in/into the pool.
Paul fell on/onto the floor.
The crab washed up on/onto the shore.
the extent that these pairs do differ, the compound preposition conveys the
completion of an action, while the simple preposition points to the position of
the subject as a result of that action. This
distinction helps us understand how directional and locational prepositions are
related: they stand in the relationship of cause and effect, as these examples
Mariam went to Cambridge.
Mariam is at Cambridge.
Jean fell on(to) the floor.
Jean is on the floor.
Susumu dove in(to) the water.
Susumu is in the water.
occurs with several classes of verbs.
“to” + verb = infinitive
in this group express willingness, desire, intention, or obligation but does not
function as a predicate in a sentence:
I refuse to allow you to intimidate
me with your threats.
I would like to ask her how long she has been skiing.
I plan to graduate this summer.
Henry had to go to the Bursar's office to pay his
In other cases "to" is used as an ordinary proposition.
of communication: listen, speak
(but not tell), relate, appeal (in the sense of
"plead." not attract)
of movement: move, go, transfer,
for transfer, all the “verbs of movement” can take "toward" as
well as "to." "To,"
however, connotes an orientation toward a specific destination, while
"toward" suggests movement in a general direction:
Drive toward the city limits and turn north.
The plane was headed toward a mountain.
Take me to the airport, please.
"Onto" can generally be replaced by "on" with verbs
Dietrich jumped on(to) the mat.
Huan fell on(to) the floor.
Athena climbed on(to) the back of the truck.
Some verbs of motion express the idea that the subject causes itself or
some physical object to be situated in a certain place (compare
“destination” and “location” above). Of these verbs, some take only "on."
Others take both "on" or "onto," with the latter
being preferred by some speakers.
The plane landed on the runway.
(not onto the runway)
Joanna spilled her coke on the rug.
(not onto the rug)
The crane lowered the roof on(to) the house.
The baby threw the pot on(to) the floor.
taking only "on" are rare: "set"
may be another one, and so perhaps is "put." Other verbs taking both
prepositions are “raise,” ‘scatter” (when it takes a direct object),
“pour” and “add.”
The farmer scattered seed on(to) the fertile ground.
We are adding on a wing at the back of the building.
We are adding a porch onto the house.
a, "on" is really part of the verb, while in b "onto" is a
simple preposition. This contrast
points to a fairly important and general rule:
Simple prepositions can combine with verbs, but compound prepositions
There are a number of verb-preposition combinations that have the meaning
of continuing or resuming an action when used in the imperative mood.
(Not all of them have the force of a command.)
Except for "hang," which takes both "on" and
"onto," they all occur
only with "on." The
meanings of these combinations, some of which are idiomatic, are given in
hang on (continue to grasp tightly)
carry on (resume what you were doing)
sail on (resume or continue sailing)
dream on (continue dreaming; a humorous way of saying
that it is an unattainable goal)
lead on (resume or continue leading us)
rock on (continue playing rock music)
With verbs of motion, "into" and "in" are
interchangeable except when the preposition is the last word except for an
adverbial of time, manner, or frequency in a declarative sentence.
In this case, only "in" (or inside) can be used.
The patient went into the doctor's
The patient went in. (not into)
Our new neighbors moved in yesterday.
the last example, the last word is the time adverbial "yesterday," so
the object of the preposition in “The patient went in.” can be omitted.
Of course, in an information question, "into" also can be a
last word except for an adverbial when its object is questioned by a wh- word:
Now what kind of trouble has she gotten herself into?
Now what sort of trouble is she in?
Verbs expressing stationary position take only "on" or
"in," with the ordinary meanings of those prepositions.
If a verb allows the object of the preposition to be omitted, the
construction may have an idiomatic meaning.
The cat sat on the mat.
The doctor is in his office.
The doctor is in.
(available for consultation)
“In(to)” has two special uses with move.
"move in" is followed by a purpose clause, it has the sense
The lion moved in for the kill.
The police moved in to rescue the hostages inside the
In the two above examples, "in" is part of
the verb, so "into" cannot be used;
we cannot say "The lion moved into for the kill."
"into" is used with move, it functions as an ordinary preposition to
convey the idea of moving something from one place to another.
We will move your brother's old bed into your room.