What is the meaning of "in" and "on" when they are used together?


I have never seen the prepositions in and on used together in any sentence. I cannot imagine what in out would mean in a sentence. However, I recently have seen this kind of usage, and I had difficulties to understand the meaning.

The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the Child.

Can in on or on in be combined? If the answer is yes, how does the meaning change?


Posted 2013-04-02T17:22:16.483

Reputation: 377



As this ELU answer indicates, the correct version of this phrasal verb is actually to home in (to head directly towards a target). But OP shouldn't let that bother him; quite possibly most native speakers use the "wrong" version.

So the combination isn't really in + on - it's home in + on. It occurs with other phrasal verbs of the general type [verb] in, such as...

I'll look in on you this afternoon (to look in = visit briefly)
We'll check in in the afternoon (to check in = confirm arrival - at a hotel, for instance)
The burglar broke in in the night (to break in = enter illegally by breaking a lock or window, etc.)

As those last two examples show, although it might look a little odd to some, there's nothing "incorrect" about repeating even the same preposition. The first occurence is part of the phrasal verb, the second is just a normal preposition indicating the relationship between verb and object.

EDIT: Per comments below, I've just changed "sound a little odd" to "look a little odd" in the above text. The stress patterns of normal speech mean you'd barely notice the same preposition occurring twice (one would normally stressed, the other not, so they'd sound very different). But in the written form it's distracting/off-putting for the reader. Suppose, as per @J.R.'s example, your first thought was to write...

I didn't understand what she was getting at at first.

In that particular case, you could just insert a comma between the two at's to help the reader along, but it's only a partial solution which won't always work. Unless you're committed to accurately reporting actual speech, a little rewording is probably better...

At first I didn't understand what she was getting at.

FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica

Posted 2013-04-02T17:22:16.483

Reputation: 52 587

1As you said, many of these so-called consecutive prepositions are actually phrasal verbs followed by a preposition. I'll add one that the O.P. inquired about: "He is getting on in age" (getting on is a phrasal verb). Another one where the preposition repeats: "I didn't understand what she was getting at at first" (get at is a phrasal verb, too, although I'd strongly recommend rewording that: "At first, I didn't understand what she was getting at"). – J.R. – 2013-04-03T00:27:08.073

@J.R.: Most of us (me, at least) aren't quick enough to foresee the potential awkwardness of repeated at at before we're committed to saying it. But it doesn't really notice in speech, since most of us (me again! :) drop the second vowel to an unstressed neutral schwa, so it's obviously not the same sound repeated. I think you're thinking of the written context, which isn't really "English" for most practical purposes. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-04-03T02:22:19.880

FF: Yes, by "rewording that", I meant in a written document. In speech, those utterances just happen, and they are nothing to fret over over the course time. ;^) – J.R. – 2013-04-03T10:30:45.020

@J.R.: Me, I think English language is an interesting thing to discuss and learn about, and I'm with John Lawler that language is a spoken phenomenon. Written grammar is a relatively boring hotchpotch of disparate attempts to codify/impose "rules" which are often decades if not generations out of date. Mostly, I think it's misleading to give learners the impression spoken usages are always somehow "sloppy/incorrect" if they conflict with traditional rules of written grammar. Spoken usage is the "real thing"; written forms are just a pale imitation. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-04-03T16:42:28.273

FF: Fine as a general rule, but, in this case, the O.P.'s question reads "I have never seen..." and "However, I recently have seen..." which indicates we might be talking about writing, as opposed to conversation. That being the case, I figured it wouldn't hurt to chime in with a comment about written English. Not only that (take it from one who happens to be in the midst of grading 24 term papers at the moment), it doesn't hurt to share a writing tip every now and then. :^) – J.R. – 2013-04-04T01:16:35.443

@J.R.: Okay, you've convinced me. I don't retract any of my comments above, but you're quite right that we'd normally try to at least avoid consecutive occurrences of the same preposition in writing. I'll edit to reflect. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-04-04T01:24:08.167

1No need to edit; I wasn't correcting you. In fact, I've already upvoted your answer. My original intent was to supplement your answer, not voice disagreement with it. – J.R. – 2013-04-04T01:26:56.573

@J.R.: But the point you make is valid, and I think the answer is improved by including the broad substance. I'm influenced in my current thinking by this top-rated answer, which endorses a "colloquial" usage as "correct", without even mentioning the fact of it being highly informal spoken usage. Sometimes I'm not sure how deep ELL should go in attempting to convey all the implications of various usages in different contexts.

– FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-04-04T02:03:33.220

1I would think most ELLers would appreciate a fairly comprehensive treatment of the question. You're correct: the way we talk and the way we write are often two different ways of using English. That being the case, I often like to indicate, "That's how I might write it, but I wouldn't say it that way" (or vice-versa). I wouldn't want an ELLer to learn that something is "normal" or "acceptable" from one of our answers, and then go use it in the wrong context. This has been most pleasant intercourse is perfectly grammatical, but I wouldn't... well, you get the idea. – J.R. – 2013-04-04T08:58:08.460