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In the camp we had to collect wood--an easy task since it was still daylight when we arrived. The next part was harder: build/building the fire.

Do I have to use the -ing version of the verb? Why or why not?

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As a general rule, if you are unsure, remove the adverb: how would you construct the sentence without using the word harder?

The next task was building the fire.

A possible alternative would be to use the infinitive:

The next task was to build the fire.

The colon acts as a replacement for "which was". The last sentence essentially reads:

The next part was building the fire, which was harder.

The act is building the fire. The adverb harder is comparing the difficulty of the task with collecting wood.

The choice of writing the sentence using a colon is stylistic: the emphasis is on how difficult the task was, not when the task was performed.

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  • Wouldn't it also be possible to read "...: build the fire." as being essentially an imperative. – DRF Jul 24 '15 at 10:30
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    @DRFYes it still works, but is non-standard in that it effectively changes tense to present: it is almost as though you are now ordering yourself to build the fire (as though the recount was being narrated from some "inner voice"). I believe this is essentially an informal shortening of the infinitive, but to get a fuller explanation & more expert analysis, better ask on English language usage SE – martin Jul 24 '15 at 11:43
  • Re "build the fire" : as though it were a step in a series of instructions: 1. Gather the Wood 2. Build the Fire, where the "name" of the step (its default label) serves as the needed nominal. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 25 '15 at 12:28
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The next part was harder: build/building the fire

Let's move the pieces around.

The next part, ______________, was harder.

The value that goes into the placeholder slot must be apposite "the next part", that is, it must be something that can function as a nominal.

One candidate is "building" since -ing forms can act as quasi-nouns.

Another candidate is a to-infinitive phrase, which also serve a nominal role.

To err is human.

To build a fire at night in driving rain is no easy task.

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    @martin: Agreed, the infinitive-phrase is not an imperative. An actual imperative couldn't fill the slot, but an imperative perceived nominally could. "The lawn mowed, I proceeded to the next task on my to-do list: tidy your room". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 25 '15 at 17:51

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