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If the context is crystal clear and, as such, allows no risk of misunderstanding or ambiguity whatsoever, unlike "Paul jumps into the lake (= Paul jumps into the lake from a certain point)" vs. "Paul jumps in the lake (= Paul is in the lake and jumps out)", is it grammatically acceptable in AmE to substitute "in" and "on" for "into" and "onto" to indicate movement or the idea of movement, for all but the most formal prose?

E.g.

Should we go in the pool first, or should we shower first? source

Let's get on the bus before the good seats are taken. source

Let me translate this in the language of non-BS... source

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    I feel like you're a lawyer leading the witness with this one. Yes, obviously if it's crystal clear and if the setting is informal, it is commonly accepted... which you already know based on the examples you provided. – Digital Chris Mar 24 '14 at 16:53
  • @DigitalChris Is it also appropriate for informal business email and letters, Chris? – Elian Mar 24 '14 at 17:02
  • I suppose that would depend on the specific use case, but I would ask the opposite question: is there some reason not to use the more specific, technically-correct "into" at the cost of only 2 letters? – Digital Chris Mar 24 '14 at 17:06
  • @DigitalChris "Into" and "to", unlike "in", clearly indicates the idea of movement. I assume you wouldn't say "I'm planning to go in France in July" or "I have to go in the grocery before it closes", would you? However, I can't seem to find any fault in saying "I have to go in the bathroom periodically and throw water on my face to wake up" in informal settings. ;-) – Elian Mar 24 '14 at 17:32
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    As I said, it's all context-specific and use-case-specific. I would say "I have to go in the grocery before it closes": somebody is talking my ear off right outside the grocery store. I want to shut them up. I stop them by saying, "I have to go in the grocery before it closes." I don't think this question can be asked as a generality. – Digital Chris Mar 24 '14 at 17:43
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In and into are not, strictly speaking, grammatically interchangeable in formal writing. On and onto have a little more leeway, but are also not always interchangeable.

But, colloquially we often use in for into.

It is perfectly acceptable to say go in the pool, jump in the pool, etc. But, as you correctly stated above, that introduces ambiguity:

I am going around in the pool. -- Unlikely to be the intended meaning, but it could be.
I am going into the pool. -- The more likely intended meaning.
I am urinating in the pool -- This might also be a likely interpretation from the colloquial usage of go to mean urinate (Thanks Digital Chris!)

I am jumping around inside of the pool. -- Again, unlikely from context.
I am jumping into the pool. Most likely scenario.

You can get on the bus, and you can get in the bus. But, they have subtly different meanings:

Get on the bus - Board the bus with the intention of riding.
Get onto the bus - Is awkward since it implies climb on top of. Better to say get on to the bus.

Get in the bus - Get inside the bus for whatever reason.
Get into the bus - Get inside the bus for whatever reason.

But, note that we don't get on the car. We do get in or into the car, though.

For whatever reason buses, trains, planes, and other large conveyances have a notion of being board-able (employing the preposition on), but cars and vans generally do not. (This may be convention.)

Compare this to a bicycle, motorcycle, etc.. You get on a bicycle, but this is the physical sense of being on top of it.

Languages are always translated into one another. Never in. But, you can speak in a language.

Some other cases where on and onto are not interchangeable:

Turn on the lights.
Turn onto the lights - You'd probably never say this. It implies that you physically are turning yourself onto some lights.

But, they are interchangeable when on carries the sense of on top of.

Put that on the counter.
Put that onto the counter.

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    "Going into the pool" and "going in the pool" can mean VERY different things. ;) – Digital Chris Mar 24 '14 at 17:45
  • Absolutely! I should put that in my answer! – David M Mar 24 '14 at 17:45
  • @DavidM "I'm peeing in the pool" sounds also pretty ambiguous to my ear if the context is unclear, as long as it can imply that I'm in the pool and peeing inside of it, but also that I'm standing on the poolside and overtly peeing into the water. – Elian Mar 24 '14 at 18:23
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    @David M. Nice answer. I disagree that there is significant ambiguity about urinating in versus into the pool. In fact, it would not sound strange or ambiguous to me to say/hear "urinate in the cup/toilet". However, I do struggle with instructions like "turn this signed form into the teacher" because it implies special powers. – Mike Mar 24 '14 at 21:08
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    @Mike Urinate in and into the pool are not at all ambiguous. It was a reference to go in the pool, meaning urinate while in the pool. I will review to see if I stated it clearly enough. Urinating in a cup or toilet is unambiguous because of the difficulty in standing inside either of them. – David M Mar 24 '14 at 21:11
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In many cases, in is used for into, but not always. We get in the car, go in the water, get in the driver's seat, go in the store. We get in the shower, we get on the bus, but we do not translate one language in another.

It somewhat depends on the verb as well as the activity. We tend to climb onto, squeeze into, drive into, latch onto, and others. In and on are not freely interchangeable for into and onto.

  • What do you mean by "you go in the store"? Is it actually acceptable in informal settings to say "OMG, I forgot it was already 6:30! I have to go in the bakery before it closes"? Or do you mean "I was cruising the avenue when I saw Stephanie go in the bakery store"? Also, I can't seem to find any fault in saying "The children climbed on the tree". Can you please explain why it obviously doesn't sound appropriate to your ear? – Elian Mar 24 '14 at 18:02
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    @NourishedGourmet Going in the bakery is the physical act of entering it. Most would say go to the bakery because entering is implied by the action of going there. Climbing onto the tree is mounting it. Climbing on the tree is climbing once you've already mounted it. – David M Mar 24 '14 at 18:13
  • @nourished In effect yes. Climb onto implies on top. Climb on could mean climbing up the leg. There's not much else on a table to climb, so usually they'd be interchangeable. – David M Mar 24 '14 at 18:46
  • @DavidM How about if I say "Would you please take care and not let the kids climb on the table" and "Would you please take care and not let the kids climb onto the table"? Both sound just about the same to me, aside from the latter being more formal than the former. – Elian Mar 24 '14 at 18:46
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    @NourishedGourmet - I would say, don't let them climb up onto the table; or, he was up on the table! – anongoodnurse Mar 25 '14 at 1:03

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