Sunday, 9 May 2010

I've been asked to enlighten the path where split infinitives, apostrophes, adverbs and ambiguity are concerned, so hopefully this installment should clear up some grey areas.

Split Infinitives – To split or not to split?

That is the question. To answer that, firstly we need to ask: What is a split infinitive?

Let’s break it down and start with the infinitive. This is an unmodified verb. There are two kinds of infinitives: full infinitives and bare infinitives. Bare infinitives refer to the basic verb, for instance:

• Go
• Run
• Ask
• Brush

Full infinitives are created when the word ‘to’ is placed in front of the verb. For example:

• To go
• To run
• To ask
• To brush

A split infinitive occurs when an infinitive is split in two by an adverb (a word that modifies the verb). I've highlighted the adverb in italics, placed between the split infinitive. For example:

• to gracefully dance
• to aggressively brush
• to boldly go (probably the most famous split infinitive example)

Despite your best efforts, split infinitives will creep into your everyday writing without you noticing. There seems to be some confusion over the grammatical usefulness of split infinitives. Purists are quick to tell us to avoid them, but to some degree, splitting an infinitive is probably better in order to avoid ambiguity within a sentence. To illustrate this, look at the following three statements and identify which one is the split infinitive.

1. The player is instructed carefully to run around the defender.
2. The player is instructed to carefully run around the defender.
3. The player is instructed to run around the defender carefully.

The second one is the split infinitive because the word ‘carefully’ is splitting the infinitive ‘to run’. This sentence is not entirely grammatically correct, however it avoids ambiguity because the player is told to carefully run around the defender, rather than the reader thinking the player was instructed carefully, or that he moved around the defender in a careful manner.

Sometimes it is necessary to split infinitives this way, not only to avoid ambiguity, but also to perpetuate a better sounding sentence. One split infinitive is permissible, but too many will spoil your writing. (More on ambiguity further down this article).

Look at the most famous split infinitive, the Star Trek statement ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before.’ While some would argue it is incorrect, what would happen if it were worded differently? Would it have the same effect? Would it set the scene adequately?

‘To go boldly where no man has gone before’
‘To go where no man has gone before boldly’

It wouldn’t have the same dramatic effect as the original statement, and when you read them aloud, they don’t read right either, so on this occasion the split infinitive is a dramatic necessity. It works because of this. Of course, there are occasions when they can make sentences sound awkward.

To horribly sing is a terrible thing. (The split infinitive doesn’t sound right)
To sing horribly is a terrible thing. (This one is correct and sounds better)


Ambiguity exists in everything we do, from what we say, the gestures we make, the way we conduct ourselves. Sometimes what we say isn’t what we mean, and what we mean isn’t what was intended. The same is true for writing.

Sometimes we write one thing, but it ends up meaning another thing entirely. This is known as lexical ambiguity. This simply means a word or phrase which has more than one meaning.

So many words in the English language have several meanings. Light, for instance, could mean light work, light not dark, light the way, light as a feather. Bank has different meanings. Money bank, bank left or right, the bank of a river.

Syntactic ambiguity refers to phrases or sentences that are phrased unintentionally to give more than one meaning. They occur in everyday writing, but they’re frequently found in newspaper headlines, and to be honest, they should know better. For instance:

Police help dog bite victim.

The police helped the dog bite the victim? Or the police helped the victim of a dog bite? While the sentence is amusing, the real meaning is not clear.

The following two examples were spotted in the Metro newspaper, Wednesday May 5th 2010:

‘Labour candidate stands by worst PM comment’

Does that mean he physically stood by a comment, maybe printed on a banner or poster? Or had he made a statement, and he was sticking to it?

‘Markets tumble on Greek debts alarm’

Does that mean the market tumbled on the Greek alarm, which was labelled ‘debts’? Or did they mean that Greek market shares tumbled?

‘The chicken is ready to eat.’

Does that mean the chicken is ready to have some food, or does it mean the cooked chicken is ready to be eaten?

The vicar married my sister.

The vicar married her? Or did he conduct a marriage service for my sister?

It’s not just newspapers and magazines, we all do it. We do so without thinking, but it’s not until we edit and re-draft that we see the ambiguity in some of the sentences we write. Some are so subtle we don’t always spot them, so be thorough when checking through your work. We’re almost immune to them because we see it and hear it so much in everyday life that simple ones could escape our notice. Weed them out, otherwise it could effect the quality of your writing.


We’ve touched on adverbs before, and how you should use them sparingly, but what are they exactly?

Many adverbs end with‘ly’, usually by adding the ‘ly’ to the end of an adjective, although there are some words which are not adverbs and do end in ‘ly’, words like, friendly, elderly and lonely. These are adjectives, and shouldn’t be confused with adverbs. And some adverbs don’t end with ‘ly’. Words like everywhere, here, there, now, anywhere, often.

Adverbs tell us four things:

Manner – How was this done?
Place – Where?
Time – When?
Degree – How much?

Jane danced slowly. The adverb slowly tells us how she danced.

The traffic was bad everywhere. The adverb everywhere tells us where.

I watered my plant today. The adverb today tells us when. (Note: some adverbs can be confused with nouns, like today.)

I passed a really difficult driving test. The adverb really tells us how much so.

Adverbs have their uses, to a lesser rather than greater degree, so avoid overuse. More importantly, avoid using them within dialogue, as this serves to kill your writing.


The apostrophe denotes word contractions because of missing letters. They also indicate the possessive, as well as indicating the structure of unusual words.


This is a contraction of two words to become one. The word ‘not’ is a common word used in contraction. Did not becomes didn’t. Would not becomes wouldn’t. Word contractions like ‘I am’ become ‘I’m’, ‘we had’ becomes ‘we’d’.

Cannot becomes can’t.
They had becomes they’d.
I would becomes I’d.
It is becomes it's. (Not to be confused with its)

Indicate the Possessive

Singular possessive means that the apostrophe is used to indicate possession with nouns. The rules are quite straightforward - add an apostrophe and the letter ‘s’.

This phone is John’s - That means the phone belongs to John.
I threw the women’s bags - The bags belong to the women.
It is everyone's duty to vote - The vote belongs to everyone.
The girl’s shoes – The shoes belong to the girl.
The moon’s glare – The glare belonging to the moon
The dog’s bone – The bone belonging to the dog.
New York’s skyline – The skyline belonging to New York.

What about the words that end with‘s’, and therefore present us with a headache? For instance, what about the name James? Is it ‘James’ bag'? Or what about ‘James’s bag’? Sometimes it’s personal preference on which one you use, but either is correct.

Plural possessive

If the word is plural, then add an ‘s’ and then an apostrophe. For instance:

The girls’ shoes – The shoes belonging to all the girls, because ‘girls’ is plural.
The boys’ gear – The gear belonging to all the boys, because ‘boys’ is plural.
Three weeks’ wages – Wages of three weeks, where weeks is plural.

There are some cases where you wouldn't use an apostrophe in the singular, and therefore you don't need to use it for the plural.

• All photos are mine.
• I own many DVDs.
• I was born in the 1970s.
• Collect those glasses.

Some words are not possessive, even though people mistakenly add an apostrophe, simply because the word ends in an ‘s’. In the examples below, the departments do not actually possess anything, so there is no need for an apostrophe.

• Sports car
• Accounts department
• Facilities department
• Wages office

You’ll find sometimes words are plural but there is no possession, and therefore no need for an apostrophe.

• I have two Windows computers.
• Sonys are the best value.
• Suberus are cool.

Apostrophes can cause quite a few headaches, particularly with plural possessives, and it's common to see shops, bars and markets getting it wrong by placing the apostrophe in the wrong place on their menus, in windows and on A-boards. Don't be one of them!

Next time: Frequent faults. The most common faults novice writers make.


  1. Thanks for another great post, A J. In particular, the plural possessive apostrophes. I know I struggle with them and I've read other works of fiction and I know I'm not on my own. ;-)

  2. Thanks David. They can be bothersome. I certainly hope the info helped.