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A Word, Please: Dive in to this deep dive into the difference between ‘into’ and ‘in to’

Lauren Baumgartner trains  at Vanguard University's gymnasium.
Lauren Baumgartner trains at Vanguard University’s gymnasium, soon to be replaced with the new Lions Arena. Grammar expert June Casagrande confirms that Baumgartner, like other players is “into” sports, not “in to sports.”
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

From time to time, I get called on to referee grammar disputes.

For example, I was recently asked to settle an argument about whether you should write “I’m not into sports” or “I’m not in to sports.” Instinct may tell you it’s the first one, and you’re right. But understanding why is another matter — especially when you ponder similar sentences like “He’ll drop in to see you tomorrow,” in which “in to” should be two words.

So how might you find these answers on your own if you don’t have a personal grammar valet on call? The first one is easy. It’s in the dictionary — but you’ll find it only if you understand the importance of reading all the different definitions for a word. The second one requires a basic understanding of a concept called phrasal verbs.

To find out whether it’s “I’m not into sports,” look up “into” in a dictionary. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, for example, you’ll see it’s a preposition that’s “used as a function word to indicate entry, introduction, insertion, superposition, or inclusion.”

That’s not helpful, which is why you might be tempted to stop reading there. That would be a mistake because if you look at all the definitions, you’ll eventually get to 4c, which defines “into” as “involved with or interested in.” Merriam’s two examples: “into sports; not into her music.”

That fast, you have your answer: “into” is one word in “I’m not into sports.”

To understand why “in to” is two words in “He’ll drop in to see you tomorrow,” you need to know about phrasal verbs.

A phrasal verb is a verb plus one or more other words, usually a preposition, that changes the meaning of the base verb. For example, “throw” means one thing, while “throw up” means something quite different. “To sleep” means one thing. “To sleep around” means something else. To “give up” doesn’t mean you “give” in an upward direction. And though you might log a lot of hours at work, you do something different when you log in to your email account. These are all examples of phrasal verbs.

The rules of grammar experts and handbooks don’t always apply, writes June Casagrande.

Three-word phrasal verbs are less common but just as crucial. Any time you “come up with” a solution to a problem or “look down on” someone, a phrasal verb is doing the heavy lifting.

Some phrasal verbs use “into,” like “I really can’t get into this movie.” Others give you two options — one with “to” and one with “into.” So you can “dive in to your studies” or you can “dive into your studies.” But if the phrasal verb uses “in” and not “into,” you can’t just attach the “to” yourself. You have to keep the “in” separate because it’s part of the phrasal verb.

So when you hand in your assignment to your teacher, you keep a space after “in”: hand in to the teacher. When you log in to your account or log on to the internet, you’re using the phrasal verbs “log in” and “log on,” which need the “in” and “on” separate from any “to” that may follow.

Sometimes, the fastest way to find an answer is to search for the wrong form in the dictionary. When I type “log into” in Merriam-Webster’s search page, it corrects my spelling to “log in to.” When I search “log onto” it tells me I want “log on to.”

Lots of these phrasal verbs have their own separate entry right in the dictionary. “Log on” is one example. Other times to find a phrasal verb in the dictionary, you need to look up the root verb then skim the definitions to find the phrasal verb form you’re looking for. That’s the case with the phrasal verb “see to,” which doesn’t have its own entry but instead is explained under the dictionary entry for “see.”

If you don’t have a dictionary handy, your gut is your best guide. Most of us would guess you “give in to” a demanding child instead of writing you “give into” him. And our guess would be right.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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