The Trouble with To


By Denise Loock


A critique partner handed me a copy of the article I’d written. She had circled every to with red ink. Most sentences had one red ring or two or—dare I admit—three?

How could I have missed all that repetition?

Simple. Because to has many functions, we use the word so often it becomes invisible. For most words, Merriam-Webster gives one or two usage examples. Under the first definition of to, M-W lists over forty examples. Seven other definitions for the two-letter word are also given, each followed by ten or more examples.

So how can we reduce our dependency on to?

Minimize Use of Infinitives

An infinitive is a verb form used as an adjective, adverb, or noun; it’s usually preceded by the word to. For example, John didn’t want to wait for the bus, or I am too busy to go to the movies tonight. Many times, though, the infinitive can be eliminated with some rearranging: Movie night isn’t an option. I’m too busy.

Sometimes the infinitive works well and should be left alone: “To be or not to be, that is the question” and “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” (Tampering with Shakespeare is a crime, isn’t it?)

Writers can usually avoid the use of an infinitive as a subject: To wait for the bus is tiresome becomes I don’t like waiting for the bus. A sentence can lose its beauty, however, if you become tyrannical in your extermination. Would you choose all humans make mistakes, but forgiving others for their mistakes is divine instead of to err is human, to forgive divine?

Search for these infinitives in your manuscripts: to begin, to be, to go, to do, to speak. Find ways to eliminate them. Oops! I meant eliminate them when possible.

Avoid Multiple Verbs

Don’t string verbs together like meat on a skewer. Consider this sentence: John is scheduled to emcee the banquet. It contains a verb phrase and an infinitive, but emcee is the crucial verb. Write John will emcee the banquet.

Another example: I believe the best person to do the job to be John. Makes your vision blur, right? Choose this instead: John’s the best person for the job.

Eliminate Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases help writers describe and explain, but use them wisely. In a first draft, you might write Samantha wanted to go to the game to see if Jodie was there with Bob. Too many tos. Possible revision: Samantha wrote the game time on her calendar. Would Jodie be there with Bob?

Sometimes to can be eliminated by using an indirect object. Instead of Jamie handed the package to her, write Jamie handed her the package.

A triple elimination example:

John intended to go to Ireland after he went to England.

John scheduled his tour of England and Ireland.

Avoid Wordy Phrases

Wordiness is a perpetual problem for writers, so be aware of pet phrases that clog your sentences with unnecessary tos:

to begin with (first)

due to the fact that (because)

has the ability to or is able to (can)

considered to be (may be)

give the opportunity to (let, allow)

in order to (so)

is going to (will)

As part of your revision process, look for to. The exercise will tighten your work and hone your editing skills. Protect your manuscripts from to-itis.

Photo by Nikhil Mitra on Unsplash

Photo courtesy of and Njaj

Denise Loock is the owner of Lightning Editing Services. As a freelance editor, she helps published and unpublished writers create clean, concise, and compelling manuscripts that will attract publishers and intrigue readers. She teaches Editing Devotionals 101 and Sentence Diagramming 101 for The PEN Institute and is the director of PENCON, the only annual conference for Christian proofreaders and editors.



  1. Very helpful post! As you eliminated the "to's," your example sentences showed rather than told -- Thank you

    1. Yes. Good revision helps with the show/tell problem too.


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