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I have never seen the prepositions in and on used together in any sentence. I cannot imagine what in out would mean in a sentence. However, I recently have seen this kind of usage, and I had difficulties to understand the meaning.

The man Jack sniffed the air. He ignored the scents that had come into the room with him, dismissed the scents that he could safely ignore, honed in on the smell of the thing he had come to find. He could smell the Child.

Can in on or on in be combined? If the answer is yes, how does the meaning change?

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As this ELU answer indicates, the correct version of this phrasal verb is actually to home in (to head directly towards a target). But OP shouldn't let that bother him; quite possibly most native speakers use the "wrong" version.

So the combination isn't really in + on - it's home in + on. It occurs with other phrasal verbs of the general type [verb] in, such as...

I'll look in on you this afternoon (to look in = visit briefly)
We'll check in in the afternoon (to check in = confirm arrival - at a hotel, for instance)
The burglar broke in in the night (to break in = enter illegally by breaking a lock or window, etc.)

As those last two examples show, although it might look a little odd to some, there's nothing "incorrect" about repeating even the same preposition. The first occurence is part of the phrasal verb, the second is just a normal preposition indicating the relationship between verb and object.


EDIT: Per comments below, I've just changed "sound a little odd" to "look a little odd" in the above text. The stress patterns of normal speech mean you'd barely notice the same preposition occurring twice (one would normally stressed, the other not, so they'd sound very different). But in the written form it's distracting/off-putting for the reader. Suppose, as per @J.R.'s example, your first thought was to write...

I didn't understand what she was getting at at first.

In that particular case, you could just insert a comma between the two at's to help the reader along, but it's only a partial solution which won't always work. Unless you're committed to accurately reporting actual speech, a little rewording is probably better...

At first I didn't understand what she was getting at.

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    As you said, many of these so-called consecutive prepositions are actually phrasal verbs followed by a preposition. I'll add one that the O.P. inquired about: "He is getting on in age" (getting on is a phrasal verb). Another one where the preposition repeats: "I didn't understand what she was getting at at first" (get at is a phrasal verb, too, although I'd strongly recommend rewording that: "At first, I didn't understand what she was getting at"). – J.R. Apr 3 '13 at 0:27
  • @J.R.: Most of us (me, at least) aren't quick enough to foresee the potential awkwardness of repeated at at before we're committed to saying it. But it doesn't really notice in speech, since most of us (me again! :) drop the second vowel to an unstressed neutral schwa, so it's obviously not the same sound repeated. I think you're thinking of the written context, which isn't really "English" for most practical purposes. – FumbleFingers Apr 3 '13 at 2:22
  • FF: Yes, by "rewording that", I meant in a written document. In speech, those utterances just happen, and they are nothing to fret over over the course time. ;^) – J.R. Apr 3 '13 at 10:30
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    No need to edit; I wasn't correcting you. In fact, I've already upvoted your answer. My original intent was to supplement your answer, not voice disagreement with it. – J.R. Apr 4 '13 at 1:26
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    I would think most ELLers would appreciate a fairly comprehensive treatment of the question. You're correct: the way we talk and the way we write are often two different ways of using English. That being the case, I often like to indicate, "That's how I might write it, but I wouldn't say it that way" (or vice-versa). I wouldn't want an ELLer to learn that something is "normal" or "acceptable" from one of our answers, and then go use it in the wrong context. This has been most pleasant intercourse is perfectly grammatical, but I wouldn't... well, you get the idea. – J.R. Apr 4 '13 at 8:58

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