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Is “the fire consumed everything on its way” correct?

I thought "on its way" and "in its way" were pretty much equivalent in English and meant pretty much the same thing except in very rare cases. Am I wrong? How do you know which one you should use?

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    Replace "on its way" with "in its path" to say what you intended it to mean. – Erin Feb 27 at 1:37
  • I don't know how to cite an idiomatic-language question's answer. All I can say is, it isn't incorrect, but I'd use "along its path" because that's what I've heard before. – Mazura Feb 27 at 3:27
  • @Mazura: For example, a native speaker of American English can cite themselves: "To my (American) ear, ________ sounds natural." – Jasper Feb 27 at 4:29
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    I'm not sure why you would think "on its way" and "in its way" mean "pretty much the same thing". You can see an apple tree on your way even if you don't see an apple tree in your way... – user21820 Feb 27 at 11:59
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They are not equivalent. "On the way" means that the location or object is along, adjacent to, or near some route.

If we're going to John's house, can we stop by the store to pick up some snacks? It's on the way.

"In the way" means that the location or object is directly in the path or blocking that route.

You used to be able to see the ocean from that hotel, but recently they built a larger hotel that's in the way.

Another way to think about it is that something "on the way" is convenient, while something "in the way" is an obstruction. It's possible to have both in the same sentence:

On the way to Lauren's house out in the country, we were delayed by a herd of cows that were in the way.

Moreover, "on the way" only really makes sense when talking about something related to people, or other entities that have the ability for conscious choice, even if it's only to specify some point of interest.

The restaurant is on the way to our hotel, if you want to stop for a quick bite.

"Fire" would not qualify, as it is mindless. A fire would not stop at a corner store to pick up a bag of chips (a.k.a. crisps) on its way to burn a town. Instead it might burn down the store, if it was in the way, which is what you should use in this case:

The fire consumed everything in its way.

I can't think of any case where you can freely substitute one for the other without changing the meaning.

(Edit) In the case where you're talking about a conscious entity acting as a destructive force (such as an army), which you use depends on what you want to say. For example, if you want to imply the army was engaged in wanton destruction then, as with fire, "in the way" makes more sense.

During the march south, the Union army indiscriminately torched any towns that were in the way.

On the other hand, if you want to imply the army was consciously selecting targets for destruction, then "on the way" would work:

During the march south, the Union army deliberately torched railways, supply caches, farms, factories, and anything else on the way that might be of strategic value to the Confederates.

  • If fire would be used as a metaphor for army it would then make sense? – repomonster Feb 26 at 23:54
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    @repomonster It depends on the context. If you're talking about wanton destruction then you'll want to associate the army with any other destructive force, and in the way makes more sense. "On its march south, the Union army indiscriminately torched any towns that were in the way." – Andrew Feb 27 at 0:02
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    @repomonster If you use "on the way" it makes it sound like the army is making side trips to consciously choose its targets, "On its way south, the Union army took care to burn down any railway depots, supply caches, and anything else that might be of strategic value" – Andrew Feb 27 at 0:03
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    It's hard to think of examples where they mean the same thing. Being "on the way" (easy to get to from the path) and "in the way" (blocking the path) don't have even remotely similar meanings. They even have opposite implications with "on the way" implying convenience and "in the way" implying inconvenience. – David Schwartz Feb 27 at 0:30
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    This could make sense within context of a longer sentence or paragraph: "They had hoped some crops would survive as the inferno progressed from the barn to the farmhouse, but the fire consumed everything on its way" - however, the important qualifier here is that we know the destination, even if it is not explicitly stated a second time: "the fire consumed everything on its way [from the barn to the farmhouse]" – Chronocidal Feb 27 at 10:42
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They can mean similar things in many cases, but they are definitely not always the same. For instance, 'in' can mean 'inside [of]' while 'on' can mean 'on top [of]'. There are too many use cases to explain. You pretty much have to know them all in a case by case sort of way.

In your example, they mean different things, but the effect could be similar.

'The fire consumed everything in its way' means that the fire burned everything that was blocking its path.

On the other hand, 'The fire consumed everything on its way' literally could mean 'everything' (rather than just everything in its path). However, people would probably understand your intent.

Doing something on the way doesn't have to mean that the direct object is nearby: e.g. 'I called my friend on my way to the dentist.' Your friend could be in another country.

A fire could destroy things far away on its way, too. For instance, the destruction of a bomb factory in its path could blow up the whole town on its way. I think it would be reasonable to say the fire destroyed the town, but people could argue that. Or a fire might cause a beam to fall that triggers a switch that makes a rocket launch that causes who knows what else to happen. Anything the fire could do during its journey could be done on its way.

However, when it comes to humans, there is sometimes a context that implies convenience, as Andrew mentioned (but that context doesn't always exist). For instance, "Since you're already going to Chicago, will you pick up some stuff for me on the way?" That's about convenience, while, "I called my mother on the way" isn't necessarily.

It's pretty common for 'in' and 'on' to mean different things.

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    I feel like the fire would only be consuming things on its way if it had an apparent destination. "The fire went straight for the gas company, and consumed everything on its way." Other than this nit, I prefer your answer, because it feels like it speaks more directly to the OP's example. – Ed Grimm Feb 27 at 1:06
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They are not identical in meaning, but the outcome MAY be the same.

"on it's way" relates to objects in close proximity to the path that it follows.
Here
- "way" is essentially a reference to a physical route, although most would not intuitively see it as meaning this.
- "on" means "in immediate proximity to", besides.

"in it's way" refers to items BLOCKING it's path or lying ON (rather than next to) the path it took so that the fire passed across or through them.
Here
- "way" is again a reference to the physical path taken.
- "in" means blocking, occupying, lying across.

  • "in its way refers to items on the path" - no wonder OP is confused :) – freedomn-m Feb 27 at 15:37
  • @freedomn-m It's English, innit. – Russell McMahon Feb 28 at 13:18
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I would add that "in its way" can be ambiguous. Is there any anthropomorphism of the fire? Fire has a specific way in which it consumes, so you could be saying that the fire consumes everything in that way. Another example of that use would be.

"The man seemed cold and distant, but he loved her, in his way"

The implication of that is that the man did love, but had an odd way of showing it, for whatever reason. He had his ways, his mannerisms, and you had to know him well in order to understand his meaning. If you know fire, you know the way it consumes - flames licking, objects turning black and charred, smoke wafting off. You know fire, and you don't need that stuff explained. Without any context, I could easily see someone personifying fire, describing it as mean, angry, merciless, with mannerisms and destructive mannerisms.

. That's very different from the use mentioned in other answers, such as

"The man kicked the dog, because it was in his way"

Here the man is trying to storm off somewhere, but the dog is right in the path - the interaction would not have taken place if the dog had been off to the side.

"On its way" only has one meaning, as far as I know.

"The man patted the dog on his way to the other room."

The dog is near enough to the path that the man could pat it without veering off, or without feeling like he was going out of his way. The distance is subjective, and highly dependant on circumstance, but the idea is that the dog is neither an obstacle, nor a burden to reach.

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