Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Sometimes, errors in spelling and grammar arise because we overthink the matter and end up over-correcting our writing. That’s how someone might say that the cake is being shared by John and I when they really should be saying the cake is being shared by John and me (or me and John). Other times, we may start writing a sentence with a particular word or phrase in mind and we misuse it because our train of thought leads us astray. The latter was likely the case when I spotted an error with “in-laws” on Facebook.

With Christmas dinner later on this week, my friend was in the middle of preparing his house for the guests to come. Everyone was coming over to share in some festive cheer and this naturally included his wife’s side of the family too. In talking about the situation, he said:

“When your wife’s in-laws are coming to town, you need to help her be a star.”

He goes on to talk about how he wants to the house to be in immaculate condition, but did you spot the error in that otherwise simple sentence? He had the word “in-laws” in his head and he was thinking of his wife. This led to an incorrect reference, because his wife’s in-laws are actually his parents… just as much as his in-laws are his wife’s parents.

It’s an honest mistake and anyone could have made it. Let’s just hope he’s more careful about cleaning the carpets than he is about talking about his wife’s family.

On a related note, while the plural form in-laws is commonly accepted to refer to the family of the spouse in general or to the parents of the spouse in particular, it should not be used when referring to specific individuals. The plural form of “brother-in-law” should be brothers-in-law and not brother-in-laws. However, you can still refer to your brother-in-law’s home, for instance, if you are talking about that which belongs to the one brother-in-law.

For my part, I find some of the terminology surrounding in-laws to be a little vague. Your sister-in-law can actually be two very different people. Even if were to assume a certain level of heteronormativity, your sister-in-law could be your brother’s wife or she could be your spouse’s sister. I think the term also applies to your wife’s brother’s wife. But hey, we’re all family now, right?