Tricky bits of language


in Writing

Frieze in Parliament

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. August 25, 2007 at 7:53 pm

Has a master’s degree from Oxford… doesn’t feel comfortable enough in his native tongue to use one of the major tenses…

. August 27, 2008 at 2:43 pm

Reading the OED

atechny (n.) A lack of skill; a lack of knowledge of art.

Reading through the dictionary, I am struck again and again by the fact that many words that describe common things are obscure, while many words that describe obscure things are widely known. For example, everyone knows that word dinosaur, even though no one has ever seen or met one. Yet, even though we are faced each and every day with artistic ignorance and lack of skill, very few of us know the word atechny.

That’s from Ammon Shea’s superb Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.

Astorgy is the lack of natural affection when it would normally be present.

Accismus is an insincere refusal of a thing that is desired.

Agathokakological means made up of both good and evil.

And those are just some of the A words.

. September 29, 2009 at 1:49 pm

September 29, 2009, 8:00 am
Save the Subjunctive!
By Philip B. Corbett

It’s confusing, it’s widely ignored and in most cases it’s indistinguishable from other verb forms. So should we give up on the subjunctive mood? I say, no!

Not quite yet, anyway.

I’ve dealt with this issue before. If you’re in need of a further refresher course, check Garner’s entry in his Modern American Usage.

. July 3, 2011 at 10:17 am

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

-James Nicoll

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