My truly wonderful daughter-in-law occasionally uses incorrect grammar. Before she had a baby I just ignored this, but now that our granddaughter is about to turn 3, and is talking a lot, I know that sooner or later she’ll (the baby) use an incorrect form (other than just baby talk). Do I correct it if it’s something her mother misuses all the time? Or ignore it? What if she asks me why I say X when her mother says Y? I don’t want to do anything that might hurt my DIL’s feelings.
S.W. / Greensboro, North Carolina
Happily, this isn’t something you even remotely have to worry about! Young children simply don’t experience the kind of dissonance you’re envisioning. Think about it — kids don’t grow up speaking baby talk, after all. And never mind minor grammatical slips — there are kids whose primary caretakers speak little to no English whatsoever, and those kids still grow up to speak with native fluency. They don’t get confused, or at least they don’t get any more confused than any other little language learners do. (English confuses everyone when they first try to learn it, because it has a huge lexicon and very inconsistent rules. As a result, small children often go through a phase of overregularization during which they’ll become incorrectly consistent about things like plurals and tense — the “mouses comed out of their hole” phase. This isn’t anything to worry about, either.)
By the time children are making sentences, they’re picking up language from many different sources — parents, peers, caregivers, media, teachers — all of whom have different ways of speaking. And their little brains sort it out brilliantly, picking up not only on the structural rules governing language but on linguistic conventions. Ask a kindergartner to tell you a story as if it were a fairy tale, they’ll begin with “once upon a time”; ask them to tell it as if they were a sportscaster, they shift into the present tense.
And learning those conventions and how different speech registers work is absolutely crucial. Children’s language development can’t be separated from their social development, and the more varied input kids get, the better. If I may language-nerd for a moment, you’re concerned about syntax, but what matters far more is pragmatics. Syntax is language in a bubble; pragmatics is how we use language to communicate in specific social contexts. “Anyways,” for example, is a solecism — but it’s also a private joke between my cousin and me, which makes it pragmatically perfect for certain moments. Having perfect grammar isn’t nearly as important as knowing when to use perfect grammar, and when to shift into a looser register.
(And a little unsolicited advice: Look up your DIL’s errors, because they might not be. There are a lot of grammar myths floating about, and it can be quite embarrassing to correct someone, implicitly or explicitly, when you’re the one who’s wrong. Do not ask how I know this.)
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.