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Handcuffing the Grammar Police

Should you correct others' speech? Plus in-law correspondence and a guest's food duty.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)
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Recently I was talking with a friend about another friend's sickness and said I felt "badly" for my sick friend's family. The friend I was conversing with interrupted me and said I should have said I felt "bad" for the family. I don't dispute my grammar slip, but was it rude of my friend to interject an admonishment about my grammar in the middle of such a serious conversation? I've often wondered what the etiquette is for correcting others' grammar. I feel that it is rude to do this, but I know many people who seem to believe it is not only appropriate, but their duty.
E.R. in Stoneham

And they're wrong. The etiquette for correcting another person's grammar is that you don't, not unless you have blanket permission and a compelling reason to do so. Even then, never interrupt a train of thought or a serious conversation. The English language has been around for 600 years in its present form, give or take a century, depending on which linguistic historian you ask, and is the dominant language worldwide for business, science, and politics. It is, in short, sturdier than the average friendship and in need of less coddling.

Some people correct others' grammar more out of unthinking habit than out of a deep protective instinct toward the mother tongue. It's a verbal tic with them, as swearing or automatically making wisecracks is for other people. As with these other peccadilloes, ignore it if it doesn't bother you, and if it does, gently register an objection.

My in-laws think I should call them regularly so they can talk to my daughter. I think my husband should do it and we should each take care of own parents, siblings, etc. for cards, gifts, and calls, so that neither one of us is burdened with doing everything. My husband says that in his family, the women are the ones who keep contact – a tradition imposed on his mother and aunts and that they are determined to keep others to. I believe that a particular family's responsibilities should be decided between a husband and wife. I have asked my husband to explain this to his parents, but he hasn't yet. What do you suggest?
K.G. in Boston

He doesn't have to explain anything to them – he just has to call them. What is your mother-in-law going to do? Refuse to talk to her granddaughter because her son placed the call, not you? Send birthday cards back marked "addressee unknown" because they're addressed in his handwriting, not yours? Of course she won't. You don't need to persuade your husband's family of the rightness of your beliefs; you just need them to go along with how you and your husband are doing things. And they will, because what choice do they have? "Son, I'm hanging up on you. It just ain't natural for a grown married man to call his own ma."

So don't start a fight, because there's no reason to, but do stick to your guns. It's not good for women to have to do all the emotional/relationship work in a family, or for men to gradually lose their connection to their families of origin as their wives take over the responsibility of keeping in touch. Do, though, be sensitive to how your behavior will be seen by your in-laws. What you intend as a reasonable division of labor will seem to them to be a deliberate rejection, so try to be extra warm to them to let them know they're valued. And don't cut yourself off from the possibility of becoming actual friends with some of your in-laws, so that you might even want to call them now and then of your own accord. Reacting too strongly against their expectations doesn't give you any more freedom, ultimately, than submitting meekly to them.

When attending a celebration at someone's home, should you bring an appetizer or dessert? I recently felt obligated to bring something edible, as the hostess mentioned her relatives were doing so.
M.S. in Mansfield

Guests aren't obligated to bring food unless they've been asked to. A bottle of wine or a box of chocolates is always nice, and it's considerate to ask if there's anything else you can provide when the invitation is proferred. If the host says, "Nope, it's all under control," you can take him at his word. If you decide to bring unsolicited goodies anyway, it's best if they're the kind that can be put aside and consumed later, in case they don't jibe with the planned menu. ("A sushi platter! How nice. Let me just set that down next to the antipasto and veal piccata. Nothing like Chianti and California rolls!")

The hostess of the party you cite had probably asked for help from her relatives. Often, at parties, not all guests are created equal. A wise host or hostess will often deputize a couple of close friends or relatives to help bring food, serve or clean up, or make sure Grandma stays out of the liquor cabinet and Cousin Bob doesn't start ranting about illegal immigration like he did at the Memorial Day picnic.

My Word
Lots of us find it wise to get extra beauty maintenance in the summer. Keep basic tipping etiquette in mind (15 to 20 percent, with a $2 or $3 minimum) when you go in for those trims, peels, and polishes. Don't forget, beauticians can easily put their hands to razors, skin-dissolving chemicals, and boiling wax. You want to stay on their good side.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

Send your etiquette questions to Miss Conduct by clicking here.


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