WNW: "Into" or "in to"? ACK!

Today's Word Nerd Wednesday is brought to you by astute reader Lucy from An Ordinary Mom, who requested I clarify for readers one of her peeves:

The difference between into/in to and onto/on to.

First, let's take out the TO part and just deal with IN and ON.

IN and ON are both a plain old descriptors. They describe where something currently is.

The book is in her purse.

The cat is on the pillow.

When you add movement to the sentence (when the subject isn't just existing in a location anymore, but getting there), you have the option of adding to to the end of the word, creating one longer word:

She put the book into her purse.

The cat jumped onto the pillow.

You don't have to add to when there's movement. The sentences work just fine without it:

She put the book in her purse.

The cat jumped on the pillow.

So here comes the part that confuses people:

When do you use IN TO and ON TO as separate words?

You make them separate when they're not working together, when they just happen to land side by side.

For example, take this sentence:

Joe came in to check the stove.

To check the stove is acting as a phrase explaining what Joe came to accomplish. TO CHECK is the verb of that phrase. It's not connected to IN.

The IN belongs elsewhere, to the location Joe happens to be entering on his errand.

We could expand the sentence to clarify where Joe went to show that IN and TO aren't working together:

Joe came in the kitchen . . . to check the stove.

Here, in is clearly separate from to because the kitchen is where Joe was headed.

See how in the shorter version, ("Joe came in to check the stove.") in and to just happen to be next to each other?

If you add that Joe came INTO the kitchen, you still have to add another TO when you explain why he's there: TO check the stove:

Joe came INTO the kitchen TO check the stove.

You can't have INTO alone and have that sentence make any sense:

Joe came into check the stove.

He came into WHAT? He can't go into a CHECK. He came in. And he checked the stove. Two separate actions.

Another example where they are TWO words:

She went back IN TO take the test.

Analyzing it:

She went back IN (silent question asks: TO WHERE?) TO (or, IN ORDER TO) take the test.

Like we did with Joe, let's tweak the sentence so we can make it one word after all. Like before, if we're adding INTO and a location, we still need another TO for the verb:

She went back into the classroom to take the test.

We added the classroom so we can say where she's going INTO. (Answer: the classroom.)

Remember, INTO means movement.

Back to the original sentence:

She went back IN TO take the test.

Can how see how IN and TO don't belong together?

More examples of INTO as one word (note that there's always movement AND a location):

He put the cheese INTO the fridge.

She jumped INTO the pool.

The baby put his fingers INTO the mashed potatoes.

The same concept applies with ONTO/ON TO.

ONTO shows movement.

ON TO are two words that happen to be next to each other, doing different functions.

When in doubt, pause after IN or ON and then continue the sentence. Does it sound funky? Then you probably need INTO or ONTO.

Let's try pausing:

She moved on . . . to other things.

Yep. That sounds right. She's moving on, doing something new.

Making it one word ("She moved ONTO other things") would mean she's getting on top of other items, say, climbing a pile of books or a stack of tires.

Another pause:

He climbed on . . . to the table.

Nope. This time there's movement, and we know where he's going:

He climbed onto the table.


Next week: Why in the heck does "how come" mean WHY?

Today's tour stops:
Not Entirely British
Alison Wonderland

Comments

LisAway said…
Good one today, Annette! I've been wondering the same thing lately about a while and awhile. . .

And I can't wait to read the one about how come. It makes sense to me, maybe because of all the older English I've read (not SUPER old English, but, you know, a little Shakespeare and stuff like that. Okay, only that.)
Kristina P. said…
This was another very interesting post. There are words that can be one word, or two separate words, and sometimes I don't know when to do which!
SO said…
English lesson for the day - Check!

Thanks! I probably still mess this one up.
JustRandi said…
I love WNW! Seriously! I look forward to it every week!
Jillybean said…
I've wondered this myself. Thank you.

Now I am also wondering what Joe found when he checked the stove.

;0)
Jenn said…
I'll have to let this post sink INTO my brain.
Now, ON TO other things.
amelia said…
I feel more educated already!
Heidi Ashworth said…
I feel grateful that this is one grammar element with which I have no problem. :)
You have a gift for explaining things - teaching without patronization. Were you ever an English teacher?
LexiconLuvr said…
Another WNW. Ah...I've got my fix. Even if I don't struggle with this particular issue, I still love the "nerdiness." *Content Sigh*
An Ordinary Mom said…
To correct the record, I was more wondering about this for my own education as opposed to the education of others :) !! For the most part into/onto vs in to/on to makes sense to me, but there are still times where I have to think about. Thanks for all the clarification. I am nerdy, I always get excited for WNW :) !!

By the way, you really should become an Enlish or Linguist teacher. You rock!
Heatherlyn said…
I'm looking forward to next week's explanation.
Lyon Pride said…
Thanks for clarifying. I always hesitate when I use "in to" but it looks like I shouldn't second guess myself.
Karlene said…
Saw that very mistake in a book I read recently.
Melanie J said…
It's funny. I consider myself an above average grammarian but then I freeze when it comes to my own writing. This is one of those things that I suddenly started over thinking when I write lately, so I like this post. Another thing that's calling me is that I somehow keep second guessing myself about past tense verb usage when I can clearly see the answer in anyone else's stuff. So weird.
I love reading your Word Nerd posts. So educational. I learn a lot.
Kate said…
This was great. There are so many things that people don't understand as they write in every day. Great post.
Diann said…
Not sure if you've ever covered this one on WNW - is "prolly" an acceptable shortening of probably? I've seen this multiple times in the last few weeks and I'm tempted to pop through the computer to throttle the person on the other end.
Annette Lyon said…
Diann, You're kidding--you've seen that WRITTEN?! I've heard it, and that's annoying enough.

It's on my list!
Diann said…
I'm guessing I've seen it 30 + times in the blogs and sites that I visit over the last few weeks.

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