Saturday, October 25, 2008

Are You Onto Something?

Many of my questions come from my reading, when I see usage that I know should never have made it past an editor or phrases that I think have been used incorrectly. Recently, an author used the phrase "he was onto something" several times, and I found myself unable to decide whether he should have written "on to something". (Clearly, I need to start reading books with more absorbing plots, but that's a discussion for another blog.)

When you use a phrasal verb that includes the preposition "on", you use "on to". Thus, "they walked on to the next block" means something different than "they walked onto the next block." The former indicates that they, whoever they may be, kept walking (walked on) to the next block. The latter means that they walked until they were upon a block, and would be interpreted more likely as a block of wood or stone than the street between two intersections. You can easily establish the difference "moving on" and "moving onto", for another example.

In the phrase "he was onto something", however, you are not using a phrasal verb but merely a verb of existence, a form of "to be". The phrase is an idiom. I ran across another version of the idiomatic use of onto, "they're onto us". Both phrases offer the same sense of a subject having knowledge of a hidden or little-known predicate. In all of the scholarly discussions of these idioms, however, the authors have used onto in their examples. I take that to be the consensus, then. I think I'm onto something, there.