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I know that the following sentence is grammatically correct:

Repetition is key to strengthening your memory.

I'm confused about something. I am an intermediate English learner. I had assumed that anything that came after the preposition "to" had to be a verb, but the sentence above demonstrates that this is not the case, since "strengthening" is a gerund and not a verb. Thus, I would like to know exactly when something that comes after "to" is a verb and when it is a gerund or noun.

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  • If it's followed by a verb, you use a verb, if it's followed by a noun you use the -ing form. You have "a key to" something (noun), but you "want to" action (verb). Although it's a bit more complex than that sometimes, as lots of times you can use either a noun or a verb, and if it's a verb sometimes you can use a present participle. Consult a dictionary.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 8 at 15:23
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    @StuartF Consult a dictionary?*! Commented Apr 8 at 16:47
  • "I would like to know exactly when something that comes after 'to' is a verb and when it is a gerund or noun" —I'm afraid it won't be a simple rule, but must be told from context. "To be": a verb; "To Beatrice": a dedication! (Or maybe a toast.) Commented Apr 8 at 19:58
  • @AndyBonner I explained when it is one or the other (function word). The third use: to Beatrice is a preposition.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 8 at 20:53
  • @Amin Yes, it's grammatically correct. "Strengthening" is a non-finite gerund-participle verb. We know that "strengthening" is a verb because it has the noun phrase "you memory" as its direct object. In traditional grammar, "strengthening" is called a gerund. Note that gerunds are verbs, not nouns. The noun form is called a 'gerundial noun', as in "the key to the strengthening of your memory"
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 9 at 10:19

3 Answers 3

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If there is to plus a verb with ing, it is being used as a gerund-noun (don't worry about other terminology for this).

  • Repetition is the key to strengthening your memory. [gerund-noun]

If it does not, it is a bare infinitive. Like this:

  • Repetition is the way to strengthen your memory. [bare infinitive, also known as a to-infinitive]

If it has ing, it is a gerund-noun (don't worry about other terminology for this). If it does not, it is a bare infinitive. But your problem as a learner is not learning to identify that when you come across it as you now know how to tell, it's trying not to make mistakes, like this:

  • I like to playing golf. [wrong buzzer]
  • I like to play golf. I like playing golf. [both are okay]

Certain verbs "take" to, or verb+ing like, hate, prefer

Some take only ING: enjoy, admit, mind.

  • Do you mind studying on weekends?
  • They enjoy dining out on Thursdays.
  • They admitted lying to their professor.

Others can only take to, which include afford, agree, ask, choose, decide, expect, hope, plan, prepare, promise, refuse and would like.

  • They agreed to take the deal.
  • We chose to leave early.
  • I decided to manage the business.

These things need to be memorized. They may be looked up. Don't expect to learn all of them in one day. :)

BUT: Bear in mind, that The key to strengthening is x. is a bit different. It's because the noun key takes to + verb+ing. Not because of some verb that precedes it.

The key to doing something. The approach to doing something. The road to learning quickly is etc.

(Definition of to from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary © Cambridge University Press) To as a preposition: after nouns A number of nouns are followed by to. These include nouns expressing direction or destination such as door, entrance, road, route, way: …

Conclusion: This is a partial explanation of verbs that take to, verbs that don't take to and to used as a preposition after a noun. When used like this, the to is followed by a gerund-noun or a normal noun.

  • The key to entering that city is to arrive early on the train.
  • The key to the house is under the doormat.
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[1] Repetition is key to strengthening your memory.

Yes, it's grammatically correct. In traditional grammar "strengthening" is called a gerund, a verb-form that functions like a noun. We know it is a verb because it has the noun phrase "you memory" as its direct object, and nouns don't take objects.

The noun form is called a 'gerundial noun', as in

[2] the key to the strengthening of your memory.

Notice that the noun form takes a determiner such as "the" followed by an of preposition phrase, whereas the verb-form typically takes a direct object, as in [1].

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The particular adjective selects the preposition there and the adjective is complemented by a prepositional phrase.

Exercise is necessary for strengthening muscles.

Exercise is key for unidiomatic strengthening muscles.

Exercise is key to strengthening muscles.

Exercise is necessary to unidiomatic strengthening muscles.

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