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I bite the gingerbread man and his head rolls on/into/onto my tongue.

What the correct preposition? I'm a little confused.

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into is not appropriate because we normally only use it when something goes inside something else or is pressed firmly against a surface, possibly changing the shape of the surface. For your sentence, into would be OK if you were to say:

I bite the gingerbread man and his head rolls into my mouth.

We use on when something is in contact with something or makes contact with it.

We use onto only when something makes contact with something.

For most verbs, it is sufficient to use on even when something makes contact with something. In the following examples, we could use onto, but the verb makes it clear that the books and the plate are making contact, so on is sufficient:

Put the books on the table
The plate fell on the floor.

With roll (and move), the situation is different. In the following sentence, the ball could already be on the floor and be rolling along the surface, or it could have rolled off something else and made contact with the floor.

The ball rolled on the floor

If we want to make it clear that the ball was somewhere else, then it rolled and made contact with the floor, we would use onto:

The ball rolled [from the table] onto the floor.

If, on the other hand, we wanted to indicate that the ball were already on the floor, we would use on.

This NGram shows that on is more widely used than onto but onto is becoming increasingly common. If you look at some of the individual instances of each phrase in the past 20 years, you will see a clear distinction in meaning, as described above, between rolled on the floor and rolled onto the floor.

With the head of the cookie, the only one that really works in this situation, where the head rolls and makes contact with the tongue, is:

I bite the gingerbread man and his head rolls onto my tongue.

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  • @alex: archaic? Not at all. Look at the NGram that I have added: usage of onto was steadily increasing until 2000.
    – JavaLatte
    Feb 23 '17 at 4:07
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    @alex - I think you might be confusing unto with onto. I’d agree that unto has a more archaic feel. Interesting supplemental ngram.
    – J.R.
    Feb 23 '17 at 9:03
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"Onto", but I'm curious if this is something you would say in any language, since when you bite a cookie the piece you bite off wouldn't really roll anywhere inside your mouth. Instead it kind of just lays there until you chew it up.

A more natural way to say something like:

I bite off the head of the gingerbread man and let it rest on my tongue.

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I can see why a learner might think into would be a good candidate. Here’s one dictionary definition (from NOAD):

into (prep.) expressing movement or action with the result that someone or something makes physical contact with something else : he crashed into a parked car

However, in this case, the example usage provided by the dictionary gives a good indication of the context how this is usage is typically seen – with some kind of forceful contact. You often see this in the context of sports: a race car may slam into the wall, a rugby player may crash into a ball carrier.

Similarly, American Heritage lists this definition:

into (prep.) Against: crashed into a tree.

In the case of a gingerbread man being eaten and the head rolling into the mouth, there is simply not enough force for into be the right choice. That said, something like this would be fine:

I pressed the gingerbread man’s head into my tongue and took a bite.

because press implies more force than rolls.

In your sentence, I think onto is the best choice:

I bite the gingerbread man and his head rolls onto my tongue.

because onto can be used when something moves to a location on the surface of something.

One other note, into is appropriate when something goes to an enclosed area (into the room, into the cave, for example). So, into would be appropriate if you changed tongue to mouth:

I bite the gingerbread man and his head rolls into my mouth.

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Your choice is either on or onto, into would not be appropriate since it probably does not penetrate your tongue.

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  • 2
    Actually I don't think on is a good choice either.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 22 '17 at 18:37
  • Who says into requires "penetration"? A hockey player can get checked into the boards; an outfielder's body can slam into the fence, and a tongue depressor can be pressed into the tongue (p.27).
    – J.R.
    Feb 22 '17 at 19:47
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    J.R. makes valid points about into, but I still feel like it's inappropriate in the case of gingerbread/tongue. All of those uses of into still imply some kind of forceful pressing, which doesn't sound like what a piece of gingerbread rolling on/into/onto your tongue does.
    – stangdon
    Feb 22 '17 at 20:23
  • @J.R. Are you saying if I told you "The knife was pushed into his tongue." you would understand it to mean "The knife was on his tongue?" Your use of into the boards, into the fence and into the tongue work because there is a boundary or surface onto which contact is made, and from experience one knows a tongue depressor does not cut one's tongue also the context of "pressed" is different than "pushed".
    – Peter
    Feb 22 '17 at 20:24
  • @Peter - A knife is quite different from a piece of a cookie. And it depends on the verb. If I was eating my dinner and holding a butter knife, pressed into would not imply penetration, but if it was a steak knife, cut into probably would.
    – J.R.
    Feb 22 '17 at 21:12

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