Living in Ottawa frequently involves encountering people speaking French. While I have been reasonably fluent at times, most of my felicity has been sapped by lack of use. There are many areas of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that make me feel uncertain and amateur.
In English, there are relatively few such areas. Only two really stand out as perpetually confusing for me:
- I can never remember the proper use the subjunctive. I have never understood it, correctly structured phrases employing it still sound incorrect, and the Wikipedia entry is bewildering. As such, I avoid using the subjunctive altogether. I am in good company, at least. Somerset Maugham is reputed to have said: “The subjunctive mood is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible.”
- The other is the interaction of apostrophes and the letter ‘s’ in situations where words end in ‘s’ naturally. It gets no more confusing than when you have a word that always ends in ‘s,’ is being made plural, and is a possessive. For instance: “The different species’ characteristics can be easily distinguished.” I always feel inclined to say (and write) spee-sea-ze-ze-ze.
Without a doubt, I have looked up the proper usage of each of these dozens of times. The explanation is just very reluctant to stay in my brain. Not even reading Lynn Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves has provided any lasting understanding.