Basics of writingGrammar

More confusing 1-word, 2-word uses: “in to/into” and “on to/onto”

From Rick:

Last time I asked you to decide which of the following two sentences is correct and promised the answer in my next post:

—Dan logged on to his computer.
—Dan logged onto his computer.

The first sentence is correct. Let’s explore the difference in these so we can understand why this is the correct sentence:

into vs. in to
onto vs. on to

Unlike some uses of “anytime,” the one-word and two-word versions of these are not always interchangeable.

It’s interesting to note that the preposition “onto” was not always one word. It only came to be that way in the early eighteenth century. Before that, it was two words. In fact, “onto” has not been fully accepted in British English. It’s always correct to write it as two words there, but American English prefers it as one word in the appropriate circumstances.

So, what are those appropriate circumstances?

In order to answer that question, I need to introduce the term “phrasal verb” to you. (I hear you screaming “Please, Rick, not another grammar headache. I just got over the one you gave me last time!)

I won’t be so brutal as to suggest that you suck it up (that’s a phrasal verb, by the way), but to remind you that the more you learn about the language you’re writing in, the better you’ll be as a writer. Consider this: If you’re trying to learn a foreign language, you can do it one of two ways. One, you can simply memorize words, phrases, and sentences and substitute new words into those sentence patterns:

The house is white. The house is green. The car is white. The car is red. I eat meat. I eat vegetables… and so forth.

Or, two, you can learn the grammar of the language so you can construct any sentence even if you haven’t learned sentence patterns. In the previous examples, the grammar behind those sentences is noun-verb-adjective and noun-verb-noun object. And by knowing that, we can learn to construct sentences such as, John likes red meat and green vegetables.

Granted, each language is different, and in many ways English grammar is much easier than German grammar and Russian grammar, where the nouns have cases and the adjectives have to agree in gender, case, and number with their nouns. I’ve recently started to learn Russian (no particular reason other than the challenge of it). Trust me when I say that Russian verbs are a nightmare (as if the Cyrillic alphabet and pronunciation are enough by themselves).

Back to phrasal verbs…

You’re all familiar with them. You just didn’t know what they were called. Simply put, a phrasal verb is a verb combined with an adverb, preposition, or both:

[verb + adverb] look up (as in the looking up of information)

[verb + preposition] look after (in the sense of caring for)

[verb + adverb + preposition] look forward to

These are also phrasal verbs because none of them involve “looking” in the sense of seeing or looking at something.

The English language is rife with phrasal verbs. Here are a few more. Sometimes the verb and the adverb or pronoun can be split.

—Mary turned on the radio.
—Mary turned the radio on.
—They had to put off their wedding for a year.
—What time do you get up in the morning?
—She turned down his marriage proposal.
—She turned his marriage proposal down.
—The hotel maid turned down the bedsheets.
—Who is looking after your dog while you’re away?
—My lawnmower ran out of gas before I finished cutting my grass.
—Craig made up a really entertaining story.
—Craig made the story up.
—I came across an old photo of my parents.
—I came across the river during my explorations. (meaning to discover)

But “came across” is not a phrasal verb if the meaning is swimming or coming by some other means across the river.

—I came across the river.

I’ll bet that you’ll be more conscious of phrasal verbs from now on and in seeing how common they are in the language.

As an exercise, consider the f-word and how many uses of it involve phrasal verbs (excluding the ones that are purely swears) and that don’t carry the meaning of the root verb by itself.

With this understanding of phrasal verbs, it should be easy for you to decide on the correct choices in our “onto, on to, into, in to” dilemma.

Let’s look at the first example: log on

“Log” as a verb by itself means to write down in a logbook. “Log on” is a phrasal verb, and it doesn’t need an object after it (another way to recognize it as a phrasal verb):

—He pointed at the computer and told James, “Go log on.”

Here are some very common on/in phrasal verbs I frequently see misused:

hang on to something

—Hang on while I grab a rope!

hold on to something

—Hold on as tight as you can.

grab on to something

—Grab on to the rope!

bring in (to be repaired, to show off)

—Tommy brought in his model car to school for show-and-tell.

bring into (a location)

—When he came home, Tommy brought his model car into the house.

run into (is both as phrasal and non-phrasal)

—I ran into my ex at the coffee shop. (phrasal)
—A drunk driver ran into my new car. (phrasal)
—The fireman ran into the burning building. (non-phrasal)

Another way to look at the “onto/on to” problem is to consider whether the usage is “onto” as a preposition or the adverb “on” followed by the preposition “to”:

—He climbed on to (or onto) the roof.
—Let’s go on to (not onto) the next point.

In the first use, both forms are correct because the usage of the preposition or adverb-preposition yield the same meaning, but in the second case, it’s a phrasal verb.

Going back to the earlier example of Tommy and is model car, which is correct?

—Tommy brought his model car into school for show-and-tell.
—Tommy brought his model car in to school for show-and-tell.

Technically, both are correct, but the second one looks wrong. In such a case, revising the sentence (as I originally gave it) is often a better solution.

—Tommy brought in his model car to school for show-and-tell.

While these certainly aren’t the only phrasal verb vs. preposition issues you’ll encounter, they are the most common ones I’ve encountered.

I hope this little tutorial helps, but if you want to delve into it more deeply, here’s a link:



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