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Source: Russia wants everyone to think it's building this absurd and massive super-plane:

It will be an astonishing accomplishment if a prototype ever takes the skies—never mind 80 finished planes.

Is that correct English? If so, how does that differ from takes to the skies?

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In the article you cite, I think "takes the skies" is a mistake, and was intended to be "takes to the skies".

"Take the skies" is correct English, but it suggests military conquest, as in "Then we take Berlin." In this sense, "take" means to take something into one's possession. You could say "take the skies" to mean achieving air superiority during a battle.

"Take to" is a distinct phrasal verb, not to be confused with "take", just as "pick up" is not to be confused with "pick". "Take to" has many senses (as most phrasal verbs do), most of which are not relevant here. I just looked at a few dictionaries and most did not even list the sense of "take to" used in "take to the skies". I (native American English speaker) understand it as a blend of the senses used in "take to the the hills" (go someplace separate from where you are now, seeking refuge—except that "take to the skies" does not imply seeking refuge), "take to the road" (start a journey), and "take to water" (find a harmonious fit between oneself and the thing one takes to). This exact sense of "take to" might occur only in "take to the skies" (or "take to the sky"), which is best understood as a fixed phrase.

From the context within the article, it appears that the authors simply meant "take flight" (which has nothing to do with conquest!).

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It is most likely a typo. The writer probably meant "takes TO the skies", which is a common idiom for "flies".

The phrase "take the skies" is sometimes used in discussions of military actions to mean that one sides aircraft dominate. Such a phrase might be used in a non-military context to indicate dominance of the sky in some other way, like I suppose someone could say, "The new airline has driven out all competitors and taken the skies over such-and-such place." But that doesn't seem to make sense here. The question to the writer isn't whether this airplane will dominate future air travel, but whether it will even get off the ground.

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It sounds correct to my ear, it's a similar construction to "take the road". Where the word take implies "to travel via", rather than to "gain possession of".

An example sentence of this usage of take would be:

"Take the road on the left".

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Taking the skies = To rule the skies, to dominate. (Think of soldiers who have orders to "take that hill or beach"

Taking to the skies = To fly. (Think of taking to the road or the hills)

So either the author means the planes will never dominate, or like the other people said, it may be a typo, and he means that it literally won't even be able to fly.

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