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I have this sentence:

I strongly believe that the first step in making the most efficient solution for any problem is analyzing it well.

Would it be better to use either of the following?

  • I strongly believe that the first step on making the most efficient solution for any problem is analyzing it well.
  • I strongly believe that the first step at making the most efficient solution for any problem is analyzing it well.

The context is as follows:

First of all, I concentrate on understanding the big picture of any problem. I always try to recognize all the factors that have caused the problem. Then, I start planning the solution at a very high level in order to create long-term benefits. I strongly believe that the first step in making the most efficient solution to any problem is analyzing it well. In my opinion, "What to do" is much more important than "How to do".

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    You could also say to or toward(s). Don't forget that no actual steps are being stepped here; there are no feet in this sentence. Consequently, which preposition one uses here depends on which metaphor one is employing here. On and at are probly wrong, though; since one steps on a flat surface only, it would only work if you'd previously deployed a Stairway metaphor. And step at is not normally used. – John Lawler Nov 3 '13 at 23:25
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    Then I would say ... the first step to take in creating the most ... because "taking a step" sets the metaphor, and "creating" emphasizes the fact that there is no efficient solution available yet. – John Lawler Nov 3 '13 at 23:34
  • @Marco, John: But there's nothing inherently wrong with in here. Arguably it could be more appropriate, since OP's preceding context is a list of [other] "things" that are also "in" the ingredients of "making the most efficient solution". – FumbleFingers Nov 3 '13 at 23:38
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    I agree; but to make is normally not used when there's a more specific word available to reinforce a metaphor. And the in fits well with a verb like the step to take in V-ing, but not so good with a noun phrase alone the step in V-ing. – John Lawler Nov 3 '13 at 23:42
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    You do not make a solution. Unless you are a chemist. A solution is found, not made. And I have to wonder why you are not considering to or of — which are poor choices but at least make some sense —, yet do consider at and on — which make no sense at all. Whenever presenting a list of options you should explain why you think each of them is an option at all. Otherwise we're just presented with a random list that's as good as any, and which nine times out of ten does not even contain the actual answer. Thank you. – RegDwigнt Nov 6 '13 at 11:48
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Of the options you offered, "to", "on" and "at", the first is certainly the best, and I have heard it used many times in that context. The other two don't make much sense. However, I'd offer an alternative:

... the first step toward making the most efficient solution...

It seems to me to work well with the metaphorical walk to a solution.

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The noun step (meaning an action in a series of actions culminating in an achievement) can be used with in, to/towards, and on. However, they are distinct in what they mean.

Step in a process/in a direction: The new law is a step in the right direction.

Step to/towards a goal: The new law is the first step towards eradicating drug abuse. The new law is the first step to eradicate drug abuse (In the second sentence, to is not really a preposition. It's part of the infinitive verb, to eradicate.

Step on the ladder: The first step on the corporate ladder

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