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Prepositions of Direction—To

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Prepositions of Direction—To

Uses of "To"

The basic preposition of a direction is "to."

TO: signifies orientation toward a goal

When the goal is physical, such as a destination, "to" implies movement in the direction of the goal:

This image shows earth in a view from space. The Empire State building (New York) is on one side, and the Eiffel Tower (Paris) is on the other. A plane can be seen flying from the Empire State building to the Eiffel Tower.
We flew from New York to Paris. (Or) We flew to Paris.

When the goal is not a physical place, for instance, an action, "to" marks a verb; it is attached as an infinitive and expresses purpose. The preposition may occur alone or in the phrase in order. The two uses can also occur together in a single sentence:

  • We flew from New York to Paris to see our father.

The other two prepositions of direction are compounds formed by adding "to" to the corresponding prepositions of location.

The preposition of location determines the meaning of the preposition of direction.

ON + TO = onto: signifies movement toward a surface

IN + TO = into: signifies movement toward the interior of a volume

("To" is part of the directional preposition toward, and the two mean about the same thing.)

This image is of a pond. A frog makes a splash as it jumps out of the water and onto the lilly pad.
The frog jumped onto the lilypad.
This image shows a glass sitting on a table and milk is being poured into it.
The milk went into the glass.

With many verbs of motion, "on" and "in" have a directional meaning and can be used along with "onto" and "into".

This is why "to" is inside parentheses in the title of the handout, showing that it is somewhat optional with the compound prepositions. Thus, the following sentences are roughly synonymous:

This image shows a crumpled ball of paper being thrown into a waste basket. There are several balls of paper scattered on the ground from previous failed attempts.
The paper went into the garbage can.
This image is of a beach scene. A crab is being washed onto the beach shore.
The crab washed up onto the shore.

To the extent that these pairs do differ, the compound preposition conveys the completion of an action, while the simple preposition points to the position of the subject as a result of that action. This distinction helps us understand how directional and locational prepositions are related: they stand in the relationship of cause and effect.

  • The paper went into the garbage can.

Position of subject: the paper is in the garbage can.

  • The crab washed up onto the shore.

Position of subject: the crab is on the shore.

  • See the sections below for some exceptions to this rule.

Uses of "to"

To occurs with several classes of verbs.

Verb + to + infinitive

Verbs in this group express willingness, desire, intention, or obligation.

Willingness: be willing, consent, refuse

Desire: desire, want, wish, like, ask, request, prefer

Intention: intend, plan, prepare

Obligation: be obligated, have, need

  • I refuse to allow you to intimidate me with your threats.
  • I'd like to ask her how long she's been skiing.
  • I plan to graduate this summer.
  • Henry had to pay his tuition at the Bursar's office.

In other cases "to" is used as an ordinary preposition.

Verbs of communication: listen, speak (but not tell), relate, appeal (in the sense of 'plead,' not 'be attractive')

Verbs of movement: move, go, transfer, walk/run/swim/ride/drive/ fly, travel

Except for transfer, all the verbs in listed here can take toward as well as to. However, "to" suggests movement toward a specific destination, while "toward" suggests movement in a general direction, without necessarily arriving at a destination:

This image shows a plane flying toward a storm cloud. It is raining and lightning is striking.
The plane was headed toward a storm cloud.
This image shows a golf ball rolling towards the hole of the putting green.
The golf ball rolled toward the hole.

Here are some more examples:

  • Drive toward the city limits and turn north. (Drive in the direction of the city limits; turnoff may be before arriving there.)
  • Take me to the airport, please. (I actually want to arrive at the airport.)