It’s easy to pass over this one in conversation, but when editing, you may find yourself coming to a complete halt to decide between the two. According to Merriam-Webster, “onto” is a preposition meaning “to a position on” (he hopped onto the bike). Separately, “on” is an adverb and “to” is a preposition, which refer to position and movement respectively (he hung on to the handlebars).
For me, those definitions are too similar to quickly make a distinction. It helps to determine whether “on” is part of the verb it’s modifying (hopped on), but fortunately, The Chicago Manual of Style offers a more useful trick: mentally say “up” before “on.” If the sentence still makes sense, then “onto” is probably the right choice (he hopped up onto the bike).
Copy editors love hard-and-fast rules (they make our job easier), but unfortunately, there aren’t many of them. Even though we have style guides, it seems a lot of “rules” are open to interpretation – and misinterpretation. So it’s no wonder we’ve latched onto the “don’t hyphenate adverbs ending in ‘ly’” rule for compounds. I’ve even posted about it.
But take a closer look the next time you see an “ly” word. Not all of them are adverbs (e.g., friendly, lovely). And some function as both an adverb and an adjective. Remember, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs (e.g., early English literature) whereas adjectives modify nouns and pronouns (e.g., early-onset Alzheimer’s).
Hopefully this post will help prevent, rather than contribute to, the hyphen madness caused by this sometimes tricky punctuation mark.
In this series of posts, I’ll respond to questions about all things editing. I recently received the following e-mail:
In an assignment to correct sentence fragments and run-on sentences, my third grader wrote, ‘The crow believed what the fox had said, so she decided to sing for him.’ Her teacher corrected it to, ‘The crow believed what the fox had said. So, she decided to sing for him.’ What level of umbrage do you feel is appropriate? I’m having trouble finding a rule to cite, but at the very least prefer the uncorrected version.
I also had trouble finding a rule to cite. It’s tricky because “so” can be used as both a conjunction and an adverb to mean “therefore.” When used as a coordinating conjunction, as in the daughter’s example, a comma is used to join the independent clauses. When used as a conjunctive adverb, as the teacher has done, a semicolon or period is used.
I wish I could provide a more clear-cut answer. If my fellow editors have any insight to share, please do! (For the record, I prefer the daughter’s sentence as well.)