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I want to build a sentence with the expression "the first step is", and I don't know exactly how to complete it...

Which sentence is correct?

  • To eliminate your problems, the first step is change your mind.
  • To eliminate your problems, the first step is to change your mind.
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It should probably be the second option, the one with to, but there's a major problem with your question: there isn't enough context. It's generally a good idea to provide an entire sentence rather than just a snippet from a sentence. It' even better to provide two or three sentences. Otherwise, it's like asking whether you should use "motor vehicle" instead of "motorcycle" in "[...] to work by motor vehicle/motorcycle [...]". Both are grammatically correct, but they are in different registers and might or might not interchangeable in a given context. – user21497 Feb 16 '13 at 0:38
up vote 4 down vote accepted

To be grammatically correct, "…, the first step is…" needs to be followed by either an adverbial phrase ("The first step is really hard") or a noun phrase ("The first step is the hardest step").

To turn the verb phrase "change your mind" into a noun phrase, you need to use either a gerund ("…, the first step is changing your mind.") or the to-infinitive ("…, the first step is to change your mind.").

Hence, it the first of your two sentences is incorrect, the second correct.

Edit: Actually, there is a second option. We could split the first one, and turn "change your mind" into a imperative statement:

To eliminate your problems, the first step is: change your mind!

Then it becomes a build-up, followed by a command as a separate clause.

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If you didn't want to make this an exclamation, could you punctuate it differently? I was thinking: To eliminate your problems, the first step is, change your mind. (Or maybe change your mind could be put in quotes?) – J.R. Feb 16 '13 at 7:30
@J.R. you could drop the exclamation and it would still be imperative, it would just be slightly more likely to be misread as having accidentally left out a to. Quotes as you suggest would also remove that risk, perhaps even better than the bang I use above. To be correct it needs to be a separate imperative clause, the rest is to make it clearly correct rather than something you can demonstrate is correct with a two-paragraph explanation of the grammar! (As I've said elsewhere, we don't write to be defensible, so being technically correct isn't always enough). – Jon Hanna Feb 16 '13 at 13:02

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