On a website I have read:

Interpreting the assignment question

There are usually three steps to analysing an assignment question. Some questions may involve more than one task.

Source: http://owll.massey.ac.nz/academic-writing/interpreting-the-assignment-question.php

Why does the writer not use "to analyse"? What difference does it make? Is there any rule for when to use the -ing form instead of the bare verb form after to?

  • I don't have a complete answer, but I think it's not really the presence of to that makes the difference - instead, you should think of "to verb" as one indivisible phrase, the infinitive of the verb. The question is then "when do you use the infinitive and when do you use a gerund"
    – stangdon
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 17:36

3 Answers 3


To here is the ordinary preposition. Steps is a metaphor which expresses a process as a staircase composed of individual steps, and we often use to to express the components of a whole:

Twelve pieces to the puzzle ...
Three keys to the upcoming match ...
Two parts to the assignment ...

The preposition to calls for a 'nominal' (noun-like) object to express this whole, and the -ing form of a verb is the one which can act syntactically as a noun (in this case traditional grammar calls the -ing form a "gerund"), so that is the form selected. The author might also have used a frank noun:

There are usually three steps to analysis of an assignment question.


"Analysing an assignment question" is a gerund phrase that acts like a noun. It's different from the present progressive (-ing) form of the verb. You should become familiar with it because it is very frequently used. For example:

I enjoy skiing, sailing, and riding horses.

Your example sentence is of the form "There are three steps to (something)", where "something" is a noun or noun phrase of some kind. Usually this requires a gerund since it's hard to have "steps" without an action.

There are three steps to baking a perfect cake.

There are three steps to writing a good essay.

There are three steps to learning to appreciate opera.

And so on.


There are two ways to use the word to: As a preposition and as infinitive.

When it's used as a preposition, it takes -ING, which is the case of many verbs that can only be proceeded by to as a preposition:

I'm addicted to doing it

He is allergic to helping my friends

They are used to playing in evenings

These examples mentioned above have to acting as a preposition, not as an infinitive.

These are one of the verbs that can only be proceeded by to as a preposition. How to identify when to use to as a preposition? I'm afraid there is no way to identify it, all you can do is memorize all verbs that are proceeded by to as preposition, and some of them I have already mentioned above.

One typical expression followed by to as preposition:

I'm looking forward to seeing you.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

We are looking forward to meeting you.

Here is one list of verbs that will always take to as a preposition: Verbs followed by gerund

  • Thanks for the answer but what would you get in your mind if I say: I'm looking forward to see you ? or There are usually three steps to analysis an assignment question ? Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 18:05
  • 1
    @Gamal Thomas: Some verbs (hope, want, love, etc.) can be followed by an infinitive - for example, I promise to behave. But others (such as look forward to) don't work like this, and as the British Council points out: Sorry, there isn’t a rule. You have to learn which verbs go with which pattern. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 18:53

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