Grammar Geek: In, In to, Into – What’s the difference?

Posted July 14, 2017 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Miscellaneous / 0 Comments

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Grammar Geek: In, In to, Into - What's the difference?

So… Fun fact: I’m used to talking through grammar lessons rather than writing them all down entirely. It’ll probably take me a bit to get used to the shift in medium. You wouldn’t think it makes a big difference, but it actually really does.

And, because this is the blog version, some more background because I don’t think I actually announced this properly. One of my Patreon goals was to geek out about (English) grammar once a month. I like grammar and I teach English as a Second Language, so it’s a combination of stuff that I’m pretty good at. Also did I mention I like grammar? This is a fun way for me to ramble about my interests and touch on topics that people find interesting or troublesome.

So every month, I’ll be soliciting questions about grammar and we’ll pick one that I’ll be covering that month. This is the first month and I’m happy to report that we had a great question. (I have no idea if people want me to list their names if their question is picked. I figured I’d keep it anonymous in case people feel self-conscious otherwise.)

And… Yeah. That’s what this is. A new monthly feature! These are public posts and anyone can participate in asking questions! Though the posts go live for Patrons a week before anyone else gets to see them (as opposed to the month-long wait of non-goal public posts like reviews). I hope you’ll enjoy it! I’ll put up a call for new prompts later this month.

For my first grammar discussion post, we’ve got a really fun question about prepositions! How to tell the difference between ‘in’, ‘in to’, and ‘into’. Before we get to that, a little ramble on prepositions in general: normally, they are the stuff of (ESL) student nightmares because they’re really, really hard to master. In fact, I frequently recommend students to prioritise other grammatical rules over prepositions when they have a chance because it’ll increase their odds of getting good marks.

It’s not that prepositions have no rules ever, mind you. They do! They’re just the kind of rules that, um, you don’t learn until you go off to studying English linguistics at MA or PhD level. Mostly prepositions are really kind of evil and the answer to any question (this one included!) is likely to involve “It depends on the context”.

That’s because prepositions are little grammatical words which, by and large, don’t mean anything. They’re just there to fulfil a grammatical function. So, especially if you’re not a native speaker, it’s really difficult to master prepositions. It’s kind of like if you were a fish trying to breathe air. Kind of. My point is: it’s really hard to learn rules for prepositions and it’s actually one of the ways in which you can (usually) tell whether someone is a native or a near-native speaker.

These three prepositions, though, thankfully do have some rules that we can use to determine when to use which one. That’s because they’re prepositions of place and direction. Often their meaning is abstract and you can’t directly point at it like you could with, say, ‘tree’, but you can demonstrate it and explain it.

For example: If I say “The cat is in the box”, then I can illustrate that by drawing a picture of a cat in a box. And then making it clear that this drawing refers to the concept ‘in’. If I say “The cat jumped into the box”, I can draw a story. Picture 1 shows the cat outside the box. Picture 2 shows the cat mid-jump. Picture 3 shows the cat sitting in the box. That sequence of images makes up ‘into’ and tada! We have now explained the concepts of ‘in’ and ‘into’ the way most textbooks I’ve seen tackle it: with pictures.

That I haven’t actually provided you with. I can’t draw, though, so please forgive me for not including them. (Seriously, I can’t. I couldn’t draw a stick figure cat if my life depended on it.)

But that’s a textbook example relying on images. Those work great if you’re a visual person and find languages really easy to learn in general. They don’t work great for everyone, so let’s look at a few rules of thumb.

In vs Into

This is probably the easiest rule of thumb to give you all.

‘In’ is stationary. It doesn’t move. It’s static.
‘Into’ is mobile. It moves. It’s motion.

See? Pretty straight-forward rule of thumb, isn’t it? If there is movement in your sentence, you use ‘into’. If there isn’t you use ‘in’.

If only it were genuinely that uncomplicated! You see, the idea of movement is very, um, abstract. It doesn’t have to be literal movement. It can be a sense of change to. You may not find it a particularly useful rule of thumb for yourself outside of the really obvious cases. (And that’s fine! We all find different methods and different shortcuts handy, so go with what works for you.)

Let’s look at a more abstract example:

I’m really into steampunk cosplay.

As you can see, there is no literal sense of motion or direction in this sentence. I’m not entering a steampunk cosplay. That’d be weird. But we still use ‘into’ because we’re using it to indicate that we’ve involved with something (with which we were hitherto not involved, thus change, thus motion, therefore ‘into’).

In my experience, either what I’ve just said makes at least a nebulous sort of sense or it’s totally confusing gobbledegook. If the former, yay! We are on the same wave length! If the latter, try out the rule “when you’re involved with something, we write ‘into’” and see if that helps you more.

Either way, when you’re practicing prepositions (or any rule), it can be helpful to analyse the answer sheet rather than trying to figure it out from the explanations you’ve been given. It can be really useful and educational to stop looking at what you think the answer is going to be and to start looking at why that particular answer is the right one. I know. That may sound like cheating, but as long as you work through the question and get to why that particular answer you’re still learning! And you’re learning by observing which, often, helps you make the rules your own because you have more examples of what is considered right. (Please insert a ramble on descriptivism and prescriptivism here. Anyway!)

That covers ‘in’ and ‘into’. This difference is pretty straightforward because they’re two very different things and you can find some relatively good rules or guidelines for them. ‘Into’ moves. ‘In’ does not move. If necessary you can come up with your own rule of thumb based on that general idea. Like… I don’t know ‘In sounds like inn and that’s a building and buildings don’t move, so if it doesn’t move it needs to be in. Otherwise it’s into”. (It’s okay to come up with your own rules, by the by. You’re the one learning the difference and it’s your rule, so it needs to be clear to you.)

But what about ‘into’ and ‘in to’?

Into vs in to

This one is a little trickier because they look similar and sometimes people use them in similar circumstances. I mean, look at them. There’s a difference of a single space between the letters and that’s it. It can be very difficult to spot not just because prepositions are hard in general, but because they’re so alike visually.

As we’ve already seen, ‘into’ refers to a sense of motion. ‘In to’… mostly doesn’t. We most frequently use ‘in to’, as far as I know, when we’re combining two different prepositional phrases. What does that mean? Let’s take another example sentence:

I turned my homework in to the teacher.

As you can see this sentence uses both the preposition ‘in’ and the preposition ‘to’, but they’re two separate things. This is where things get really annoyingly complicated to explain quickly!

Remember when I said that prepositions are contextual grammar words that don’t really mean anything? This kind of sentence is what I mean! We use ‘in’ because it goes with ‘turn’ in this instance.

‘turn in’ means roughly the same as ‘give’. And by replacing the phrase with a synonym, we can more easily see that the two prepositions aren’t connected. Give it a try!

I gave my homework to the teacher.
* I gave my homework the teacher.
* I gave my homework in to the teacher.

As indicated by the asterisks, the latter two sentences don’t make any sense, do they? In this sentence ‘to’ belongs with the general contextual sense of ‘give’, not with ‘turn’, and so ‘in’ and ‘to’ belong to two different phrases. They just happen to be located right next to one another and that’s what muddles the situation.

Fun things about this example sentence, we can actually write it without a space too! Let’s put them side by side.

I turned my homework into the teacher.
I turned my homework in to the teacher.

These two sentences don’t actually mean the same thing! Cool, isn’t it? (In case it wasn’t obvious yet, I geek out about grammar. But moving on.) These two sentences actually use two different prepositional phrases and, as such, they have two wildly different meanings.

‘turn into’ means something like ‘become’. So if I turn my homework into the teacher, the homework is transformed and changes its shape rather drastically. The homework and the teacher are kind of not in the same space at the same time because one became the other.

‘turn in’ means something like ‘give’. So if I turn my homework in to the teacher, I’m basically handing the teacher a copy of my homework, but it’s not changing shape and the two can peacefully co-exist.

Another fun little trick, especially if you’re a native speaker: try saying the sentence aloud. If you can introduce a natural pause between ‘in’ and ‘to’, you need to add a space because it’s two words. If you can’t add a natural pause between the two, you need to write it as one word because it’s one word.

And that, in brief, is how you know when to use in, into and in to! As explained by me, anyway. I hope you found it useful and insightful! ^_^

And now for something potentially ever more fun: feedback! Please give me all the feedback on the format and stuff. I’m writing these because I enjoy geeking out about grammar, true, but if the structure I’m using isn’t useful to you as a reader it’s kind of… defeating the purpose!

So let me know if there’s something you particularly want to see me do. (Except drawings. I’m vetoing the idea of me drawing anything. Don’t ask.) What can I do to make the posts more useful to you? More examples? Fewer examples? Additional resource links? Practice material? Etc. If you let me know what you want to see, I’ll do my best to provide it! ^_^

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