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I apologize if this question it too basic, but I have had this doubt for as long as I can remember. Consider the following sentence:

"The first thing that needs to be done is to set the trajectory."

Is it correct to use the "to" before "set the trajectory"? Or could I remove it, leaving me with:

"The first thing that needs to be done is set the trajectory."

I have tried searching for examples online, but I have not been successful.

marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Aug 10 '18 at 11:25

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  • 6
    The sentences you provide are of a special type called Cleft sentences. They have two parts, connected with some form of be as a linking verb. In your sentences the second part (after the is) is an infinitive clause with set as the verb, but it's separated from the predicate that it complements (need), and therefore the to is not strictly governed any more. So it's optional, and you're right, it can be left on or taken out and it's OK either way. Depends on how you feel at the moment. – John Lawler Jul 24 '17 at 13:49
  • My goodness John Lawler! Reading your reply makes me realize just how little I know about the English language. It's hard to believe how someone like me, who knows so little of the formal rules, can speak this language. I guess that explains why it is so popular. Thank you for your time! – DiMarzeloBellafonte Jul 24 '17 at 13:57
  • 2
    Native speakers know the rules, they just can't usually articulate them. That's something you learn at school, if it's taught. But it isn't taught in Anglophone schools, so most native speakers are innocent of grammatical knowledge. This does not make us grammarians happy, but it's the way things are. (It does also mean that it's easy for us to astonish native speakers this way, but we'd give up that cheap thrill if we could) – John Lawler Jul 24 '17 at 14:03
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    At first, they sounded the same. Then I realized the passive 'to be done' seems to be speaking of those folks over there. If they need to set the trajectory, okay. The second version seems to switch to second person, the imperative 'set' the trajectory, like let my people go. I'd like that form better if you address me: "The first you need to do is set the trajectory." I do know we can say "They can set the trajectory," as set is also third person. – Yosef Baskin Jul 24 '17 at 14:45
  • If you take a college-level writing course, and the professor is good, s/he will correct for unnecessary words. Though the OP's structure is often heard in speech, it ain't "good writing". – Lambie May 11 '18 at 16:46

We generally teach students to use either the gerund (ING) or the "to infinitive" in this case. What you're doing is using the verb 'set' but you're really talking about an action, as an idea rather than a reality. (I want {want being the real action} to break free {break free being the idea).

Basically the gerund talks about the idea of the situation (swimming is everything speaker associates with the verb swim, like pools, wetness, and any other), while the 'to infinitive ' talks about the idea of the action (the idea of actually swimming in its actionable sense).

In your example you can make a choice as well. "the first thing that needs to be done is setting the trajectory". But that won't be your instinct, as you obviously speak of actually doing the action in your example. Because you rather use the situation the action represents, you should use TO, but realise that even if people don't tend to use one or the other in specific situations, you always have a choice if you have to express an idea specifically.

  • This feels like an oversimplification — perhaps because you don’t specify in any detail what you mean by ‘‘this case’’.  For example (in a similar(?) case), I might say, “When I get to Germany, the first thing I’m going to do is eat some chocolate.” I suppose “…, the first thing I’m going to do is to eat some chocolate.” might be grammatical, but it feels awkward to me. – Scott May 11 '18 at 18:09

In formal grammar the right form is the to-form.everyday-spoken English completely varies from the formal, grammatical form of that(You can use almost anything in informal speaking) but our point of view from this aspect.

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