Suppose a person is relatively close to Los Angeles, say one mile, could they say 'I'm going into the city'? If yes, suppose that that person is 50 miles from Los Angeles, could they say 'I'm going to the city'? If yes, suppose the person is moving toward Los Angeles, what is the distance from that city at which that person should replace 'to' with 'into'? 10 miles, 5 miles, or less?

Also, could that distance depend on how big is the city to which that person is arriving?

  • I don't think it depends on distance per se, but on the attractions, sites, and bustling parts of each city that give the locals pride and identity. In the U.S., Las Vegas has "the Strip", New Orleans has Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, Boston has its Freedom Trail, and Washington D.C. has "the Mall." You go into the city to get to those places. My tongue-in-cheek definition? When you know it's going to be difficult (if not nearly impossible) to park your car, then you're definitely going into the city. – J.R. Oct 9 '13 at 23:51

It would be ridiculous to suppose there's some kind of "critical distance" involved here, whereby people nearer would always speak of going into the city, and people further away would simply go to the city.

It's just that into more strongly implies going right inside the place (usually, the city or town centre, in this case). It's a metaphor of location, invariably implying a central part of the stated destination.

Going to a place is a metaphor of direction (to = towards, in the direction of). If you're going to London, your intended destination is indeed some part of London, but it might not be a particularly central part.

I live less than 1/2 a mile from my local town centre, but it's a fairly large town, and even in the opposite direction people well over a mile away are still considered to live in this town. And we all speak of going into town when we mean going to the town centre.

Los Angeles is famously "spread out" (the area is almost as big as London, but the population is less than half). People living in outer parts of London commonly speak of going into London to mean going to a much more central part, and I expect Angelenos would be at least as likely to adopt such usages.

So the short answer is you go to a place that's somewhere other than where you started (the preposition represents the direction you'll be going in). You go into a place when your destination is somewhere that could reasonably be described as "inside" that place (the preposition represents your spatial location).

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    You're correct; over here, going into San Antonio would likely mean going near the center of town (probably very near the Riverwalk), while going to San Antonio wouldn't preclude that, but it might just as easily mean any suburb within a reasonable distance from San Antonio. – J.R. Oct 9 '13 at 23:46

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