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In English we call the father's mother "grandma", and mother's mother is also called "grandma". How should I make clear the relationship? If people say 'give that present to your grandma', which side do you mean, the father's side or the mother's side?

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  • We use paternal grandmother (or grandma) for father's mother, and maternal grandmother (or grandma) for mother's mother. (When using the Saxon genitive to indicate possession, be sure to add s after the apostrophe: father's, not father'.) Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 1:03
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    Usually you just qualify it with their lastname: Grandma Johnson or Grandma Smith
    – Jim
    Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 1:42

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As @P.E.Dant wrote in his comment, we must add a word. From most formal to most familiar:

Paternal grandfather, grandfather on my father's side, my dad's dad.

Maternal grandfather, grandfather on my mother's side, my mom's dad.

And you can substitute any of those words to form the needed relationships and degree of politeness. (For example, "My mother's mother" or "My grandma on my mom's side.") Note that in my context, at least, the "paternal" and "maternal" adjectives are generally reserved for professional settings, legal jargon, and so on. @P.E.Dant suggests below that he encounters them more often than that, though.

Some families also use different nicknames for each one, at least in Canada, since there's such a wealth of different words for these family members! For example, in my family, we always called my father's parents "Granddad" and "Nana", but my mother's parents "Grandpa" and "Grandma". I also had many friends at school with Dutch grandparents on at least one side, and they often said "Oma".

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    I'm not sure that maternal and paternal are all that formal. The locution is shorter than "My grandma on my Mom's side," for one thing. I think the adjectives are routinely used even in casual conversation by many speakers. The sample of such speakers may skew toward post-secondary education, but I've heard my own brilliant auto mechanic use "maternal" without batting an eye, and he gave up in the tenth grade. Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 3:36
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    @P.E.Dant Hmm, interesting. Of course, that is a somewhat professional context, but I admit it's a wider scope than I'd have expected. I think part of what makes them potentially high-register isn't their length, but their being so darn Latinate. Commented Jun 20, 2017 at 3:39

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