to as a preposition?

Learning to take good notes is very important. Good notes can help you remember and review a text you have read. There is no magic formula to taking notes when reading.You have to find out what works best for you. (Source: Iran's English Coursebooks)

I wonder why we have "taking" (a gerund) after "to". Is this "to" a preposition? I've checked a couple of dictionaries. The common combinations are:

(1) formula for: a formula for the withdrawal of US forces from the sea
(2) formula that: There is no magic formula that will transform sorrow into happiness.

Original Post
Freeguy posted:

There is no magic formula to taking notes when reading.You have to find out what works best for you. (Source: Iran's English Coursebooks)

Hi, Freeguy,

Yes, "to" is functioning as a preposition there; "taking notes when reading" is a gerund phrase that is functioning as the object of the preposition "to." However, "to" is not the idiomatic preposition to use in this context. Native speakers tend to use "for":

  • There is no magic formula for taking notes when reading.

In the somewhat rare cases when "to" is used after "magic formula," it is as the stem of an infinitive: "There is no magic formula to take notes when reading." There "to" is NOT a preposition. In your sentence, the idiomatic choice is "for" followed by the gerund. Perhaps you can notify Iran's textbook committee.

Freeguy posted:

Here are a few websites in which the combination "formula to + gerund" has been used.

The only link I am able to follow is the first, and it leads to an example that I find unidiomatic. If you continue to search for examples of "formula to + gerund," you will find some, and you can safely assume that I will find all of them unidiomatic; so there is no need for you to present them here or to give links to the examples.

Should you continue your search, I recommend that you compare the relative frequency of "formula for + gerund," using the same gerund. You will thus be able to compile some statistics showing you that the overwhelming preference is for "for."

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in its definitions of "formula," does not contain a single example of "formula to + gerund." It does, however, contain an example of "formula for + gerund": "1850   C. G. B. Daubeny Atom. Theory (ed. 2) v. 156   A general formula for calculating the specific heat of each class of compounds."

On COCA (The Corpus of Contemporary American English), there are 319 examples of "formula to," and only 2 of them are instances of "formula to + gerund." I find both of the sentences to be unidiomatic, and would have revised "to" to "for" if I had been able to edit the sentences:

  • "Joe Linta may have come up with a two-question formula to evaluating it."
  • "You might think that you had discerned the secret formula to becoming one of our favorite ski areas."

COCA displays 1225 results for "formula for," and I do not have time to go through all of them for you, but you're welcome to join the corpus yourself and have a look. Suffice it to say that the results for "formula for + gerund" dwarf the pitiful two results for "formula to + gerund." Here are a handful of examples:

  • "Some post the formula for calculating pay."
  • "In an era of constant disruption, clinging to purpose and recruiting for resilience is the formula for building the workforce of the future."
  • "it did suggest a sharp departure from the usual post-1989 formula for exercising global leadership."
  • "the use of total population is supported by the Constitution's formula for allocating seats in the House of Representatives among the States."
  • "He must have a magic formula for reaching the Final Four, which his teams have done seven times."

I don't have time to keep providing you with more and more evidence right now.

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