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Which of the following sentences is grammatically correct:

  1. To be human means to have a choice.
          INFINITIVE CLAUSE means INFINITIVE CLAUSE
  2. To be human means having a choice.
          INFINITIVE CLAUSE means GERUND CLAUSE
  3. Being human means to have a choice.
           GERUND CLAUSE means INFINITIVE CLAUSE
  4. Being human means having a choice.
           GERUND CLAUSE means GERUND CLAUSE

Reading through each of them, I find all of them acceptable; but at the same time I get all the more confused.

I am aware of the rule that to mean to do something is an idiomatic expression expressing intent. But I think that this rule doesn’t apply in this context of giving a definition.

Do these mean the same thing, or is there some difference between them?

  • They're all "valid", but #2 & #3 might be criticised for the potentially clumsy juxtaposition of infinitive and continuous verb forms. So the question itself is either POB or proofreading. – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '16 at 16:23
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a) [The word or phrase] 'something' means [the same as the word or phrase] 'something'.

  • = is a synonym for

b) Something means doing something.

  • = involves

c) Someone means to do something.

  • = intends

Your sentences, using pattern a)

'To be human' means 'to have a choice'. (two full infinitives)

'Being human' means 'having a choice'. (two gerunds)

*'To be human' means 'having a choice'. & * 'Being human' means 'to have a choice'. (why mix?)

Your sentences, using pattern b)

Being human means having a choice. (subject verb phrase in the gerund, usually)

To be human means having a choice. (subject verb phrase in the full infinitive, formal)

Your sentences, using pattern c), which is mistaken, since the subject is not a person…

*To be human means to have a choice.

*Being human means to have a choice.

You probably know the joke: Banana begins with b and finishes with f.

Making sense when correctly punctuated: 'Banana' begins with 'b', and 'finishes', with 'f'.

About the importance of punctuation… , Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves

  • +1. Realistically, the OP must mean pattern b, which requires "... means having a choice"; she can hardly intend choice-having as a literal definition of humanity. – ruakh Nov 20 '16 at 6:20
  • Wow! Thank you for breaking this down for me. Just a follow-up question to your comment: If I understand correctly, your rule suggests that pattern a always requires punctuation with single inverted commas. Or is punctuation only a way of making it more explicit. Because I'd argue that punctuation in the banana joke is more essential than in pattern a – Sarah K Nov 20 '16 at 10:53

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