It is never easy differentiating between the like-sounding terms into and in to. The same is true for onto and on to. We can clarify these words and phrases to help you determine which is correct for your sentence.
Into and Onto Definitions
For starters, the words into and onto are prepositions. That means that they describe the relative position in the sentence. For example:
We slipped into the pool with drinks in hand.
James stepped onto the stage.
As you can see, these words begin a phrase that modifies the action in reference to the object.
What about In To and On To?
Conversely, in to and on to are phrases that involve an adverb and the preposition to. It is important to remember with these two-word phrases that the adverbs in and on refer not to the object but to the verb. For example:
The senator gave in to the pressure.
The professor went on to conclude her lecture
In both of these examples, we see how in and on modify their respective verbs: give in and went on.
Sentences That Go Both Ways
There are situations when you can relay the same information with either into or in to. Imagine you wanted to inform a coworker that you made an important cash deposit. You could write:
I went into the bank to deposit the cash.
In this sentence, we see that you entered the bank from outside to deposit cash. You can also frame the sentence this way:
I went in to deposit the cash at the bank.
In this case, you emphasize your objective to deposit the cash.
Similarly, you could frame a sentence using both onto or on to:
He stepped onto the field to kick the extra point.
He stepped on to kick the extra point.
It is also worth noting that on to sometimes functions as an adverb more in figurative constructions, as in “The private investigator was on to something.”
Two Tests to Decide
Here is a handy trick if you find yourself at loose ends over whether onto or on to is correct. If you insert the word up after the action. If the sentence makes sense, use onto. For example:
James stepped up onto the stage.
This construction makes sense, so onto is correct. However, this sentence does not make sense:
The professor went up on to conclude her lecture
Since up does not fit after the verb, you should use the two-word phrase on to.
Another helpful test is to temporarily replace onto or on to with on, by itself. Once again, if the sentence still reads correctly, then onto is right:
James stepped on the stage.
The professor went on conclude her lecture.
The first sentence still works; hence, onto is correct. The second sentence makes no sense without to; so, you should use on to.
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