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In the sentences

This is the only study on/into the effect of X in aquatic birds.

The studies on/into aquatic birds have been carried out on species A and B.

Which word do we use?

Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘on’ as:

used to indicate the subject of something • a book on [=about] North American birds • a discussion on current events

and ‘into’ as:

relating to or concerning (something) • an investigation into the causes of the accident

Am I right in thinking that ‘into’ is used in these contexts when the study is about the result of an action (based on Google searching for both usages)?

i.e. ‘study on birds’ and ‘study into the effect of X’. Or can they be used interchangeably?

  • You would not say "study into birds" because nothing is going into a bird. But you can get "into the effect(s) of ..." – Weather Vane Jun 14 '17 at 12:05
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You can't reliably predict which preposition will be used in any particular context from its dictionary definition—see my Answer here. You have to learn, word by word, which particular preposition each verb, adjective or noun ‘selects’ or ‘licenses’ to express a particular meaning or relationship.

For instance, the verb study casts its field or topic as a direct object—we studied the effect of X on aquatic birds. When transitive verbs are nominalized, their direct objects are most often cast as preposition phrases headed by of:

A study of the effect of X ...

Nominal study also licenses on PPs:

A study on the effect of X ...

But of would be preferred if you went on to use an on PP as complement of a different word, with a different sense:

A study of the effect of X on Y ...

Study does not license into PPs as complements, either as a noun or as a verb. You would find an into PP following study only as an adjunct or complement of another consituent:

We studied into the night ... here into the night is not a complement of study but an adjunct locating the action in time.

The verb investigate likewise casts its field or topic as a direct object—we investigated the effect of X on aquatic birds—and its nominal derivative investigation likewise licenses of PPs:

An investigation of the effect of X ...

Investigation, however, also licenses into PPs:

An investigation into the effect of X ...

Here investigation is metaphorically treated like a process of digging into a formless mass to find the relevant information, as if with a probe or shovel.

The into construction tends to be used mostly in contexts where investigation designates the process of investigating—we are conducting an investigation into the effect of X. It is unusual to find into used when investigation designates the outcome—in the title of a paper, for instance, where the results are reported.

Often the nominal derivative will license the same prepositions as its mother verb. But this doesn't usually run backwards, from the noun to the verb. For instance, we never say:

* We studied on the effect of X ...
* We investigated into the effect of X ...

These are not hard and fast “rules”, but they reflect ‘standard’ formal usage.

  • It took me a minute to figure out what you meant by "PPs" here. "Prepositional phrases", right? – G Tony Jacobs Jun 14 '17 at 12:46
  • Also, a quick search reveals that the noun "study" does sometimes license "into" phrases: google.com/search?q=%22a+study+into%22 . Nevertheless, I agree that it sounds slightly stilted to a native ear. – G Tony Jacobs Jun 14 '17 at 12:48
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    @GTonyJacobs Yup, PP=preposition phrase. Google Ngrams found a study into at about 2% of a study of in the middle of the 19th century, but this use dropped to near 0 by end of that century. It has indeed been rising again in the last 40 years or so--it's now at about 0.4%, or ; one instance of a study into for every 250 instances of a study of. – StoneyB Jun 14 '17 at 13:32
  • I think that in this type of question re studies on [some group of animals or people], it is safe to say that it is always study on. – Lambie Jun 14 '17 at 15:52

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