Youse, Y'All, and Other Confusions of Modern English

146 Comments

Galway, Ireland

Liz fidgeted, then leaned forward, eyes wide-open, “But the worst—the worst—is that I find myself saying things like ‘how are you guys doing?’. ‘You guys’! It makes me sick to my stomach.”

My roommate on Claddaugh Key was Irish down to her last Guinness-drinking bone.

Alas, sitting along the harbor among the swan flocks in Galway, she was still shaking off the after-effects of a year of study in the US. More than the big cars and big people, it had been the word “guys” that drove her nuts, and now she couldn’t stop it from rolling off her tongue. She had become a counterfeit Yank.

“So what do you say then?”
“You lads.”
“Oh, that’s much better.”

Beauty may be in the ear of the listener, but “you” in the plural (second person plural for you linguists) just ain’t as simple as it should be in English, particularly in the US. That is, except in the South.

“You all” or, more commonly, “y’all” is neat, clean, and logical. It is similar to Japanese, in which you simply tag a plural indicator after “you” (anata) to make it y’all (anata-tachi), just as “I” (watashi) becomes “we” (watashi-tachi). Chinese is the same (ni –> ni-men, wo –> wo-men). Once again, it’s the Nor-Easters who are setting the standards and causing problems. If you’re north of the Mason-Dixon, “y’all” just doesn’t work.

Grammar books brilliantly solve this problem by ignoring it: “you” is both singular and plural in English, plain and simple. If only it were that simple! Gotta love those academics.

What about just adding an “s” and calling it a day?

At least formally, Spanish-speakers worldwide can agree that usted becomes ustedes—end of story. Unfortunately, outside of the poetic vernacular of the Sopranos, “youse” remains an outcast. Even with the support of colloquial Kiwis, I doubt “youse” is a serious contender for replacing “you guys”, and “youse guys” is a bastard child we should keep locked under the stairs.

Maybe it’s time for us to return to our roots and learn a thing or two. After all, German is basically Old English with a funny accent, right? This is surprisingly true, but the retrofit doesn’t quite work; they have Du (informal) and Sie (formal) for “you” but a separate word entirely for “y’all”: Ihr. Alas, the perfect solution “ye” of “Hear ye!, Hear ye!” fell out of fashion in English a few hundred years ago.

What is a Yank to do? I propose imitating the Indonesians. That’s right. Talking to your girlfriends in Jakarta, it’s as easy as making ibu (you) ibu-ibu (y’all). Hanging with the fellas in Bali? Bapak becomes bapak-bapak. So, “how are you guys?” evolves into the elegant “how are you-you?”

[Postscript: Some commenters have noted that “anda” could and perhaps should be used in place of the above pronouns in Indonesian]

Much to the chagrin of my Irish roommate, “you guys” seems to be gaining momentum, not losing it. The Brits and Canucks are of no help here. Based on my extensive studies (sample size of two), both countries are already infected with usage of “you guys”.

You can only watch so much Baywatch and Simpsons before throwing in the towel, I suppose.

Posted on: April 16, 2008.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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146 comments on “Youse, Y'All, and Other Confusions of Modern English

  1. I’m going to help you make your research a little more scientific: I’m a Canadian and I use You Guys – now your sample size is 3!

    I have to agree with your Irish friend, although I use you guys there is something that grates when I use it. Its as if somewhere in the back of my mind there is an old English professor cringing at it’s use. I’ve travelled a bit in the US and I have to say that Y’all is a serviceable solution but the next time you’re in Texas as someone what the plural of Y’all is and the magical All’Y’All (and I know the spelling is off) will be heard. At this point I give up understanding and ask for translations.

    Another interesting study/word oddity is Pop or Soda that changes its meaning depending on where you are in the US.

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  2. Hate to break it to you, Tim, but “y’all” is singular. “All y’all” is plural. At least that’s what my friends from southern Kentucky tell me.

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    • I suspect your friends from kentucky are lying. I’m from the northeast but spent several years in the military (where 90% of people around me were from the south), as well as spending time in various southern states and Texas. And I hear southerners speak frequently on TV.

      The only times I have EVER heard “y’all” used to address one person was when northerners were imitating southerners.

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  3. She thinks she’s got problems, I moved here from the UK two years ago and I’m already saying toe-made-o, calling my mobile a cell phone and thinking it’s ok to drive through red lights whilst chatting on said cell phone and having a shave. I will never ever give up the phrase taking the piss though because it’s the finest the English language has to offer and there just is no US equivalent worth it’s salt. If anybody tells you there is, they’re taking the piss.

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    • “Just messing with you” and “Just Joshing you” as well as “Just kidding you” are all American versions, but I agree “Taking the piss” is better.

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  4. I’ve got another one. When I was in the Navy I had some friends from Missouri and a couple of them said “You’uns” (I’m sure I borked the spelling) which I think was good for single “you” and plural “you” but mostly plural.

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  5. Our embrace of ‘youse’ is just one of many examples of Kiwi efficiency and innovation*. Good work Tim, nice to see you’re paying attention.

    Simon
    (Colloquial)

    * Which include the pavlova, golden kiwifruit and extraditing Russell Crowe to Australia. There are probably others too.

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  6. Damn you ferris, I was working on the same post and you dang gone and beata’ me to it.

    Down here in Oz, I was busy commending the ‘westies’ (who speak their own brand of English) because they had naturally adapted the language the same way that the Spanish had, inventing a word where none existed in English.

    The same is the case for the dime, or digame (formal) in Spanish for the words “Tell me. Starting and finishing a sentence with ‘Tell me’ makes so much more dignified, and makes sense that we’re missing that word.

    “Tellme (digame), what do you think about The Simpsons?” and “The time, tellme please?”

    But I have two more interesting things to add. The Aboriginal’s plural of a word is by repeating it, just like Indonesia. So my hometown Wagga Wagga means place of many crows.

    The second point of interest is more of an interjection. Hopefully I will be lucky enough to cut the ebb by getting an early comment in, I will deny anybody the ability to be wrong be saying ‘But the Eskimo’s have 255 words for white, language is a matter of culture, and we shouldn’t be so critical. Surely lolcats is just as right as Ze Germans’.

    When we started talking with Eskimos, we misinterpreted the gap in between their words, they were saying white-snow, hard-show, yellow-snow. There was very limited words for snow, they were just using adjectives.

    Also, the point of Lolcats is that it is bad English. If it were to become the norm by some sense of irony, in the same way that sms and IM speak has become popular in spoken English (among the under12’s and manga fans).

    Worst case scenario, it will become jargon or slang. Best case scenario it will be a phase. I’d prefer repeating a word for plural or you’se guys, which is people filling a hole that exists in a language than ROTFL. Rather than pop-culture continually recycling itself like an Andy Warhol exhibition, it shows an intelligent choice, creativeness and willingness to grow and adapt.

    Signing off. Y’all come back later Y’hear!

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  7. I’m originally from NY and have lived in the south for several years. I can attest that “you guys” is the tell that tips my hand everytime. I use y’all and the truly plural (when speaking to large groups) “all y’all,” but “you guys” always slips into the vernacular. I would also point out the word “wicked” as a term for “cool” doesn’t work in the south.

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  8. How about instead of “How are you guys doing?” you use “How is everyone/everybody?”

    Something you hear in South Central Pennsylvania is “a while”. A waitress may say “Can I get your drinks a while.”

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  9. Go with “y’all.” Anyone who resists is just standing in the way of logical, common-sense progress. The Grammar Girl podcast had a wonderful episode in which Mignon (not from the south) extolled the linguistic virtues of “y’all.”

    As for Ken’s comment about “wicked” not being acceptable as a term for “cool” in the south, I’ve got to disagree.

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  10. Oh dear, I better stay in Dixie, then – “y’all” and “all y’all” are truly useful words. Fifteen years ago we used them when conjugating verbs in highschool Latin – and that teacher also taught German!

    And Matt – down here you may be offered coke and Coke (aka Co’cola, ) and Pepsi. Non-capital coke is some other, unspecified brand of carbonated-twelve-teaspoons-of-sugar brown beverage that isn’t root beer. Although I’ve lived here most-all my life, I have no idea how to ask for a coke that isn’t Co’Cola or Pepsi. You’re really better off with iced tea…but it WILL be sweet.

    It may be interesting to consider the American South as yet another warm-weather British variant. Bill Bryson makes an interesting argument as to the source of our drawl, we drink tea more than any other beverage, scones=cathead biscuits, and I find Britspeak much easier to pick up than ‘you guys’ or ‘pop’ or…I can’t think of another Yankeeism.

    Also bear in mind that the South is not at all monolithic (another Brit similarity) – I live and speak Lower Alabam, but the Atlantan accent is entirely different, Charleston’s is lovely and genteel, the patois of Loosiana and Lower Mississip is well known, and those folks up in Kentuk and Tennessee sound different again. Further, language and accent varies a lot by class background; we may as well have Etons and Cockney fishwives.

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  11. English used to have a second person plural.

    “You” was actual the plural/formal and “thee” or “thou” was the singular/informal.

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  12. I don’t have much of a problem with you guys or you’ll.

    But when it comes time to use “he or she” or the more pc neutral “one”… (as in: one should start using you-you to indicate plural you.)

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  13. I too, hate “you guys”, especially when I am in a restaurant. It doesn’t matter how fancy it is, white table cloths included, the young waitress or waiter always approached the table with a “How are you guys doing this evening?” greeting and all I hear are fingernails scratching a chalkboard. I am a 57 yr old woman who expected that by now I’d be treated with some kind of elderly respect, but that doesn’t seem to exist in this younger generation. All age aside, I am still a woman, and not a guy. Please!

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  14. @Sarah:

    I am glad you touched on this: y’all is singular, all y’all is plural.

    I think non-southerners considering y’all plural is a common misconception, perhaps based on movie and TV caricatures…

    I am from North Carolina, the middle of the state, and I don’t hear y’all a lot anyway, but it would be used in informal situations, when relaxed or taken by surprise and not parsing you formally. I don’t remember hearing it a lot growing up…but still I know the difference somehow. :)

    When I was taking a beginning spanish lesson here in San Francisco, the teacher was trying to use y’all as a way to define ustedes. I informed her that all y’all is the more correct (only correct?) way to translate ustedes. After that in class discussions, she would make a point of using all y’all. She even used it on a written test I believe. :)

    Anyway, just something I wanted to add.

    Oh and @Sarah: co’cola…I thought I was the only one who really noticed that! Memories! If you find any interesting southern expressions, please email me, I love them! (My current favorite that can be used for a few situations deals with transplanted “Yankees” who think that because their kids were born in the south, the kids would be Southern: if a cat had kittens in the oven, you wouldn’t call em biscuits!)

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  15. And now your Canadian sample size is up to 4 but I’m going to throw a wrench in the works and tell you that I prefer ‘youse’, although with a shorter vowel than you would find on the Sopranos.

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  16. Y’all is a grammatically correct contraction or variant of “you-all” according to Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/you-all). However, “all y’all” is more a matter of emphasis, rather than referring to a larger plural group. ;) While I agree with many of the comments above, I find the blending and morphing of languages to be particularly fascinating in this ever-connected world. Go to France and you can order a “Hamburger avec cheese”, just make sure you put a French accent on it when you order it. Order the same thing in Montreal and they will point and laugh. Now who speaks “proper French?”

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  17. We already have a way of making this distinction in english. “thou” is 2nd person singular. The only problem is if thou use it, thou will sound like an ass.

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  18. Gotta agree with you again Tim. I’m in the South (Athens, GA) originally from NYC and there’s three things I always think of when I think of what the South has on the North. (Besides weather and women). Fried chicken, adding sugar to hot tea before icing it (resulting in SWeet Tea!) and a sensible plural for “you”. Granted, when I get excited and my NY accent comes out I probably sound a little funny saying it, but overall a very good word.

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  19. I recently moved to the South from the Central Coast of California and wrote about this in my blog which chronicles the cultural change (http://californiadiaspora.blogspot.com/2008/04/gone-native-yall-is-actually-useful.html). I also have a degree in English.

    You’re right that it isn’t so simple, and the fact that in many parts of the country, usage and vocabulary has been modified to make up for this glaring omission tells us that just adding -s, or utilizing “you” as both a singular and plural construct is not sufficient to convey the desired meaning.

    I’ve started using “ya’ll” regularly. Around here, it doesn’t turn heads like it would if I was using it back in California.

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