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Google Ngrams says into his pillow is more common than onto his pillow.

Example sentence:

He sank back into his pillow with a groggy groan.

My first thought was that you can only be on your pillow, not in your pillow. But now I'm not sure.

Why is into more common in this case?

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  • 8
    ngrams might be skewed by idioms like "cry into one's pillow"
    – James K
    Oct 10, 2021 at 5:24
  • You head can only be on your pillow, but to get in in that location you sink it into the pillow (if the pillow is more behind than below you) or onto it (if the pillow is lying below your head)
    – PcMan
    Oct 11, 2021 at 12:58

4 Answers 4

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Onto portrays the pillow as a surface.

Into makes sense if the pillow is fluffy and partially surrounds your head. Assuming an ordinary-sized pillow, "He sank into the pillow" is another way of saying (more literally) "His head sank into the pillow".

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    "Into" also works if you mean literally "inside of".
    – John Doe
    Oct 12, 2021 at 16:02
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I'm pretty sure sank is the reason here, it becomes a metaphor in which into is used since "sank" literally proves a rhetorical point.

The word into refers to the person slowly sinking "into" the pillow and not actually/literally the head being inside of the pillow. You can say it as in the head sank into the pillow because of its fluffiness or softness in which it can't hold the head like other pillows, which are a little harder; indicating that the head kind of compresses the pillow due to its weight.

Onto would have been the correct word to use if, for example, the sentence was like this.

He groaned, jumped onto his bed, hugged a pillow and slept.

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    "jumped onto his pillow"?? Do you know what a pillow is?
    – TonyK
    Oct 10, 2021 at 23:14
  • 1
    Uh, a pillow can either be big or small. ;-; Oct 10, 2021 at 23:58
  • 1
    It may help your answer to complete the picture: we think of the person as moving "into" the pillow — even though he has not passed through the pillow's surface or cloth — because the pillow smooshes around the person's body. By using words like "sank into", the image we get is of a very fluffy pillow with a lot of give that will envelop the body. Oct 11, 2021 at 2:13
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    @TonyK your profile says that like me you're in the UK. Don't forget that "pillow" in some types of English can mean what we'd call a cushion. Although I just found a video of my daughter jumping onto a pillow with great glee when she was a toddler
    – Chris H
    Oct 11, 2021 at 10:36
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    @TonyK no, but with "flopped on to a cushion" it would be OK IMO, so it's close
    – Chris H
    Oct 11, 2021 at 10:56
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Good question! It’s not something I consciously think about often, but into and onto are very tricky words: I remember one fellow from Mexico, who had grown up using en for both and finally thought he had it: onto means on top of, into means inside. Then he’s at the airport, and the loudspeaker announces that everyone should get onto the airplane. (I suspect what’s going on there is that we get onto ships, trains and passenger jets because those have large decks that we walk on, and into automobiles, small boats and the cockpits of small airplanes because those have compartments we sit in, but I don’t really know why my ancestors decided it should be that way.)

Personally (I’m American, and it might be different elsewhere), something going on or onto the pillow would make me think that the pillow is supporting it or holding it up, and something going into the pillow would make me think that the pillow is enclosing or absorbing it.

So, I would “rest my head on the pillow” or “elevate my injured leg on pillows.” I would also sit on a pillow or place an object, perhaps a piece of chocolate or a rose, on or onto a pillow. I would put a pillowcase either on, onto, around or over a pillow, and pull a sheet onto or over it.

In this context, he sank into his pillow because “sank” means that the pillow is too soft to support his head, so the soft pillow now surrounds his head. His head is, in a sense, partly inside the pillow. He might also carry something either in a pillow (if he wraps the pillow around it) or on a pillow (if it is on top of a pillow that supports it). He might cry into his pillow, because the pillow absorbs his tears, or scream into a pillow that muffles the sound.

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    I like that this answer explains that "in" vs. "on" in English is partly just idiomatic, but also gives some good intuition with examples. Oct 11, 2021 at 2:18
  • Most likely, because airplanes are like ships. You get "on board" a ship, where the board is literal (i.e. the deck boards). You also get "on board" a train, where AFAICT the board is figurative. So if you have a conveyance you would board, you're going to get "on" it.
    – fectin
    Oct 12, 2021 at 12:32
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If your head, or some portion of it, is currently located in some space that would otherwise be occupied by the pillow, but for your head displacing it, then your head has gone into the pillow.

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