GMAT Prepositions and Idioms: “to”

UPDATE: You can find this blog and others about idioms in our new GMAT Idiom eBook!

Prepositions in English display a powerful diversity of uses.  In previous preposition article, we talked about the proposition “from”.  Here, we will look, at the preposition “to.”


The preposition “to”

The word “to” is a preposition.  This means, it must be followed by a noun — or by something playing the role of a noun.   This latter category includes gerunds and substantive clauses.

1) I attribute my lack of acumen to staying up late every night for the past five nights.  

2) He acknowledges no responsibility to whoever may use the room after him.

In #1, the object of “to” is a gerund phrase, and in #2, the object of “to” is a substantive clause.  Both of these sentences follow idiomatic structures we will examine below.

The preposition “to” also begins infinitive.  An infinitive is something very different from a prepositional phrase.  This blog article is discussing preposition phrases involving “to”, including words and phrase that idiomatically demand this preposition.  There’s a whole other post on verbs that idiomatically require infinitives, another topic necessarily for performing well on GMAT Sentence Correction.

The preposition “to” generally connote motion toward something, and many of its uses retain something of that connotation.


Verbs + “to”

Again, just to be perfectly clear: this section is about verbs that require a prepositional phrase beginning with “to” — see the link above for verbs that require infinitives.   The following two verbs require a prepositional phrase beginning with “to”:

attribute to

conform to

contribute to

When we attribute something (A) to someone (B), we are saying that we think person B has the quality or skill or talent of A; that something, A, can also be a real-world achievement or accomplishment.  The “credit” for the talented or achievement, as it were, “travels” to the person to whom the attribution was made: this is why the preposition “to” is used.

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3) Despite initial controversies, mathematicians now universally attribute the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem to Andrew Wiles.

When we contribute something (A) to someone (B), we are giving (A) a gift or donation to B.   In most contexts including the GMAT, when the object contributed is otherwise unspecified, it is assumed to be money.   The gift or whatever is contributed “moves toward” the one who receives it.

4) Warren Buffet contributes substantially to philanthropic and charitable organizations.

5) In one of the remarkable collaborations of music history, Paul McCartney would contribute more complex and interesting harmonies to John Lennon‘s songs, and in turn, Lennon would contribute mind-bending phrases to McCartney’s lyrics.

The idiom involving the verb “conform” is a little more unusual.   When I say I conform A to B, then A is usually something under my control (my behavior, my habits, etc.), and B is some kind of more universal standard or set of rules.  The connotation is that B is based in some sort of authority, and A is something which should be governed by this authority.

6) Professor Higgins argued that status of the various races, with respect to the American legal system, still does not conform to the Fourteenth Amendment‘s lofty idea of “equal protection under the law.”  

7) The CFO estimated that Fomalhaut Corporation would have to spend more than $7 million in order to conform completely to the full panoply of EPA regulations.


Adjectives + “to”

Two adjectives that idiomatically take a prepositional phrase beginning with the preposition are:

responsible to

subject to

The very idea of being “responsible” implies someone to whom one is accountable, the person to whom one is “responding” (the root meaning of “responsible”).   That authoritative person is the object of the preposition “to.”  This relationship with the proposition carries over to the noun form, “responsibility.”

8) The CEO of most corporations is responsible to the board that hired him.

9) The senior military leaders on the Joints Chiefs of Staff are responsible to the Secretary of Defense, and through this Secretary, to the President of the United States.

10) After the state intervened to save the city from bankruptcy, the mayor asked the state senators to clarify and delineate his responsibility to them.

The adjective “subject” implies being controlled by something else, either in a legal sense, or in the sense of a natural law, or experiences the consequences of something.   A is subject to B if B is the controller or actor having influence on A.

11) Even the President is subject to the law of the land. 

12) The former politician, no longer subject to vituperative attacks in the press, was considering the possibility of a new campaign.

13) The New York City Subway System, simply because of its gargantuan scale, is subject to a relatively high rate of delays.

14) Since the electron is not composed of quarks, it is not subject to the laws of Quantum Chromodynamics.


Comparisons with “to”

Of course, the GMAT Sentence Correction loves comparisons.  The following comparative forms use the preposition “to”

compare A to B

compare to

compared to (or compared with)

in contrast to A, B

Here are some exemplary sentences to demonstrate proper usage.

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15) In The Crucible, Arthur Miller compared the activities of the HUAC to the Salem witch trials.

16) Warren G. Harding won one of the largest landslide victories in American presidential history, but in retrospect, his administration does not compare well to those of virtually all other presidents.

17) Compared to/with California, New Jersey has a relatively small coast.

18) Compared to/with other writers of the early 20th century, James Joyce may seem to have produced a limited output, if one judges purely by number of books.

19) In contrast to politics throughout Europe, politics in America are influenced much more heavily by religion.

20) In contrast to the numerous theorems of Geometry readily accessible to high school students, most of the theorems of Number Theory are so sophisticated that only those with advanced degrees in mathematics can understand them.

The GMAT does not like the words “compared to” or “compared with” combined with other comparative words:

Also, adding the word “when” before the word “compared” is always 100% wrong.



Know the idioms given in bold in this post.  As always with idioms, read, read, read!   Search for the idioms in this post in context.  You understand English best when you understand it in context.


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One Response to GMAT Prepositions and Idioms: “to”

  1. Jaspreet June 20, 2015 at 7:19 am #

    Hi Mike,
    I have a question.

    In The Crucible, Arthur Miller compared the activities of the HUAC to the Salem witch trials.

    In above sentence, the activities are compared with trials ?i understand we are discussing idioms at this point in time not parallelism , however some idioms such as “compared to” need to be parallel in the sentence,so i believe the comparison, of actives to trials is incorrect, it should have been

    X compared the activities of A to the actives of B,
    Y compared the activities of A to/with those of B’s,

    What would you say?

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