I would like to ask about the 2nd meaning of the preposition onto defined by Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary as follows.

  1. used with verbs to express movement on or to a particular place or position. For example, Move the books onto the second shelf.
  2. used to show that something faces in a particular direction . For example, The window looked out onto the terrace.

I don't get where the 2nd meaning there comes from. And I get the 1st meaning since onto is a combination of on and to.

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    You can imagine a person's gaze to be projected from the viewpoint onto the thing or area being viewed. Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 7:30
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    Compare on in onward and They marched on. Compare to in They went to the beach.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 12:08
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo Thank you very much for the instruction that would lead to the understanding. But, I am sorry that I don't get what you're intending me to get. I would like you to explain a little bit more. :) Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 18:15
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    You do not need a physical action. You throw a bucket of water out of the window. The water goes onto the terrace. You look out of the window, onto the terrace. The window looks out onto the terrace. Your gaze goes onto the terrace. Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 19:05
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    @MichaelHarvey Ah, now I get it. So in the case of water it is the water that gets on the surface. And for the second case, it is the speaker's gaze that metaphorically touches the surface. Thank you very much. Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 3:57

3 Answers 3


The complement of onto can be a prospect or anything that leads away.

The preposition on can refer not only to to the placement of something (She put the hat on her head); it can refer to the direction in which one (the one being spoken about) is facing. Hence onward and They marched on. And direction always has two elements, relative orientation and continuation.

to has the sense movement in a direction.

He went to the window and looked out.

Combined, on + to indicates something with extension-in-space there in the direction in which one is facing.

The doors opened onto a large terrace.

A person standing at that place, having opened the doors, will find a terrace there in front of them.

We would not say (except in a jest or ironic use)

The doors opened onto a small broom closet.

A broom closet lacks real extension-in-space-in-the-direction-one-is-facing (not to mention the fact that the closet door doesn't swing out into the closet area).

The door opened onto an alley which eventually opened onto a wide thoroughfare.

  • Thank you very much, for the answer that completely resolves the question. Now I understand it clearly. :) Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 19:48

Don't take any notice of grammarians / pedants telling you the single-word form onto either is or isn't "correct" in the cited context. This is an area where usage has changed significantly over the past century...

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Obviously if you want to be in the current majority, you should use the one-word form. But that's not because it's more "correct" - it's just become the more common form.

  • I think this is an also very helpful, neat answer but for another question. I am afraid that this is for another question from what I asked about. But, thank you. Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 4:45
  • @Smart Humanism: Well, we can take it for granted nothing changed over the last century in terms of the possible meaning of windows looking out on / onto some vista. So I'd say my answer clearly shows that any supposed semantic distinction between the two orthographic forms is marginal / ill-defined, to say the least. You obviously think you've unearthed a meaningful distinction, but it can't really mean much if native speakers / writers themselves are so fluid in their choice of written forms. And the distinction obviously doesn't exist at all in real (spoken) language. Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 13:01

Onto literally means "to a position on the surface of" [1], which explains its origins in on and to.

So, if the window is oriented in such a way that it faces a position on the surface of the terrace, then you can see the terrace through the window -- hence it looks out onto the terrace.

  • So you mean there doesn't need to be some real physical thing that actually gets to be on the surface of the terrace. By adopting the concept of facing a position on the surface of the terrace, it makes perfect sense. Thank you. But really does the preposition onto itself allow the added concept, facing? Or can it be a result of a long time's tolerated use of it? Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 18:37
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    There is a physical thing, its the surface of the terrace. The rest is philosophy.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 21:23
  • I am not sure I understood correctly what you meant by philosophy but I get what you're saying. Thank you. Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 3:59

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