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

142 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.

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

  1. Tim’s right of course, but “ain’t” also is a logical southern contraction of “there isn’t any.” Took me a while to figure that one out as the “a” is moved to the front of the word to make the contraction, but it still works. I still don’t like the way it sounds, but I’m originally a Canuck so forgive me. “Eh” on the other hand, what in hell is that?

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  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the interesting topic. Just a few responses to these posts:

    (1) Speakers need to be able address a group of people that doesn’t include them and well, they will use whatever resources are available. People will use whatever resources are at hand “you” to “you, no, not just you, I mean all of you” to “you guys” to “ya’ll” to “youse” and “youse guys.” The thing is, we all use language as a way to differentiate ourselves from others, so when we hear something other than “you” which is the Standard English form (whatever Standard English is), we apply social meaning to it. So when someone uses “ya’ll” we link it to the South–and all of the possible social connotations of southern folks–even though, “ya’ll” is used, and has been used for a long, long time across other parts of the U.S. We link “you guys” to teen or young adult speech–and the stereotypes about being teens–even though “you guys” is something that has been around for quite a while, people who are in their 30s and 40s have been using “you guys” most of their lives, so it’s not really a teen thing, but we can read it that way. All of this is to say that people (me included) make some pretty harsh judgments about other speakers based on language use. We can’t do this with race or gender anymore, but we sure can judge others based on the way they talk.

    (2) The contraction “ain’t” was mostly used by upper class folks until the turn of the 20th c. Once common folks started using it, it fell out of fashion (i.e., it was no longer considered grammatically correct) and became the uncouth word it is today.

    (3) And, by the way, everyone, and I mean everyone, me, you, your mother, your uncle, Dan Rather, and everyone else in the world has an accent!

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  3. Also note the various meanings of “innit”:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/yourvoice/conversation3.shtml

    “We need to decide what to do about that now innit.” (don’t we?)

    “Now I can start calling you that, INNIT!” (can’t I?)

    “I can see where my REAL friends are, elsewhere innit!!” (aren’t they?)

    “I’ll show young Miss Hanna round to all the shops, innit.” (won’t I?)

    “I heard he was good in TNA when he was there so he can still wrestle good innit?” (can’t he?)

    (via Kottke: http://www.kottke.org/remainder/08/04/15486.html)

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  4. Topics near and dear to my heart.

    I am from Phoenix, and we don’t use the word “yall” normally. But at Arizona State I had a roommate from the south who did every once in a while. I love it now…its like soup for the soul. I even brought it on my exchange abroad, although it was not received well, in fact most slang is not.

    Another word worth examining is the word; eh. Like the Canadian colloquialism. I use it once in a while, when I am in a cheeky mood. At least the word chesterfield (thanks grandma) when used in reference to a sofa is not around anymore, too clunky.

    Where I live ‘guy’ singular is commonly replaced with Bro, or dude. However, we do say ‘Guys’. Example; “Hey Guy” is not an acceptable greeting, but, “What are you guys doing for Cinco De Mayo” is perfectly acceptable. There is a HEAVY Southern California flavor in Phoenix.

    Very interesting subject, thanks for the thread.

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  5. I’m from NY and I live in Michigan now. Michigan is the home of ebonics. Y’all is not out of place here. Even in NY I used it as the more popular “youse” is just an ugly word, let’s face it. And while I can manage to say “y’all” without sounding like a redneck or a street kid, you can’t say “youse” or “youse guys” without sounding like a movie mafia boss.
    I have expounded on my use of ya’ll, and how everyone should use it at great length on more than one slightly tipsy (and not at all tipsy) occasion. My biggest pet peeve, aside from misuse of the word whom, is people who use y’all as singular. And “you guys” is tacky, unless you are addressing “the guys” specifically. My girlfriends and I are not about to grow penises just so that grammatically confused English speakers can plural their yous at us.

    Yes. Y’all is elegant. Let us embrace it.

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  6. My son (4) is a Taiwanese-New Zealander and lives in Taiwan. Last time we went home, the first phrase he picked up was “you guys”, and he found it very useful. By the end of the holiday he had also learned the (very Kiwi?) “Youse guys.”

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  7. Okay, my 2 cents on the “ya’ll” discussion:

    “ya’ll” is plural. “you” is singular. The southern Kentuckians were pulling your leg Bill (who posted on April 16). I am from and live in central KY. I occasionally here “all ya’ll” which is redundant, however, it is generally used for emphasis. I don’t use it at all, but I grew up in Lexington (I didn’t move here from another county, and didn’t spend much time in either of my parents’ hometowns when I was growing up). Generally speaking, ya’ll is used more by people here if they moved here from a more rural area. Native Lexingtonians and probably native Louisvillians use it less. You will hear it a lot, if you’re passing through, because there has been, and continues to be, a lot of migration from smaller towns in KY to Lexington and Louisville, and the greater metro area of Cincinnati.

    And for those innocents on the board who naively believe they “have no accent”… *sigh* …. Everyone has an accent!!!!

    “You don’t have an accent” is something people tell you when you speak with a modified version of the accent they expect you to have, or with an accent you picked up from the television or which doesn’t have a clear connection to your geographic origins.

    Most actors (at least those who aren’t from the south originally), butcher the usage of “ya’ll”. The only non-southern actor who (in my opinion) does a passably authentic southern accent is Kurt Russell, who nailed not just a southern accent in “Dreamer” but more specifically the central KY accent, which has some subtle variances. IMDB shows he is from Massachusetts, so he really did his homework. I was impressed…

    Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, and Ashley Judd are all from KY.

    End of my 2 cents…

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  8. I’ve gotta agree with Vicki. “Y’all” is plural since it’s only an abbreviation of “You All” or “All of You”. I’ve never thought to use “Y’all” as a singular 2nd person before, but I suppose it could, but only really improperly. And “All Y’all” doesn’t make sense because it is like saying “All of all of you,” but it does sound cool and I say it frequently myself :)

    And just so you know, the usage of “y’all” isn’t limited to the southern states. I’m a native of Central Oregon and amongst the old-timers, the ranchers, farmers, and cowboys “Y’all” and some weird expressions are still used such as “Well, we’re fixin’ to head on outta here” or “What can I do ya for? (What can I do for you?)”.

    Though I have to say its getting pretty rare to hear things like that ever since the Californian Invasion of the 90’s.

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  9. Being from the very Deep South (Alabama) with a minor in English from Mississippi State University, I believe I qualify as an “expert” on the matter of y’all. Jake is absolutely correct. Y’all is a contraction of you all, thus plural. I have heard people use “all y’all” and it is equivalent to “all of those present”. I love the colloquialisms of our great country no matter what region and regret that more and more the local traditions and phrases are being homogenized.

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  10. Hmm, it seems to me that this post and subsequent discussion got off on the wrong foot and just kept chasing its tail (and, yes, I do sometimes like to knowingly mix my metaphors to effect).

    In perfectly standard American English one can use “you” and “you all” to distinguish 2nd person singular and plural where that is important and not immediately obvious from context (language class being a prime example of a setting in which something usually perfectly well understood from context needs to be made explicit). Sure, abbreviating it and adding a twang make it a cute Southernism, but it can be used without either and be perfectly well understood throughout the U.S. Is this not so?

    The distinction between “y’all” and “all y’all” is one of emphasis not number (If I’m not mistaken, the corresponding singular form is something like “yer” ;)).

    All the discussion of “you guys”, “youse”, “y’ns”, etc is just a discussion of local vernacular, I’m afraid, and none is actually necessitated for unambiguous communication.

    Certainly “you lads” sounds infinitely better with the appropriate Irish accent, as does “y’all” with a Southern lilt, “youse guys” sounds tough if a bit on the under-educated side and, I suppose, if I were more used to it, I would find “you’ns” to have positive emotive associations, as well. But is there really anywhere that one could not use “you” and “you all” to cover all the ground that needs covering without slipping into a more provincial vernacular?

    If I’m wrong, here, I’d definitely be interested in hearing about it!

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  11. “You guys” seemed to jump in popularity in the mid 1980’s after the film “Goonies” was released.

    For those of you that remember, the catchphrase of a character named “Sloth” happened to be “HEY YOUUU GUUUYS!”

    So if you want to blame anyone for “You Guys,” blame Speilberg and his writers.

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  12. You lads is not at all better to me if the issue becomes one of gender as a female is not a lad at all. It is the same no matter the accent added. “You people” does fit in most if not all situations as does “you all” or just “you”. I think the same as Vicki and Shane on the usage of “y’all”. If it were not plural wouldn’t people have no reason for it as “you” would do the job just fine?

    I try to avoid using “you guys” and I am Canadian but yes it is the standard.

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  13. Fairly common in NZ is ‘you fellas’ instead of ‘you guys’, particularly amongst blue collar workers, ie ‘howz you fellas going’.

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  14. I used wicked today out of no where. I surprised myself so much that I don’t even remember the context. I haven’t even seen my best friend from Boston (now DC) since last Christmas!

    It’s completely common to use “you guys” in California, although I realize its a generational thing and not really appropriate. However, I can’t think of another option that’s not equally awkward/out of place. I’m just glad people quit using “hella”. That was definitely a Northern Californa thing, as I had never heard it until I moved here from Phoenix.

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  15. I live in the northeastern part of Texas and we hear “y’all” quite frequently, but I can’t say that I hear “all y’all” very often. We use “y’all” as a plural. I don’t know why “you all” wouldn’t be plural. It seems quite redundant to say “all you all”.

    Y’all have a nice day.

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  16. I cringe every time I hear someone say “youse”. Back home (Australia) it’s only the bogans (undereducated Australian versions of rednecks or hicks) who say “youse” and it really grates me. I don’t think anyone in Australia says “y’all” but I like it, and have even wanted to slip it in to conversations. It just seems so relaxed, and I mean when most Australians speak we kind of go into a habit of relaxing and letting all our words run together (even those of us who don’t have accents like Crocodile Dundee!!) e.g. When do you want to leave this afternoon? becomes Whendja wanna leave sarvo? So I like the idea of saying y’all. Anything to shorten a word!

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  17. Hi!

    I can’t help but comment on the OP’s remark: “After all, German is basically Old English with a funny accent, right?”. Unless I am missing a tongue-in-cheekish attitude here, it needs to be noted that of course it’s the other way round: English is basically (very) old German… ;-)

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  18. I must say, I have enjoyed reading this post, but mostly, I have enjoyed reading the various comments it has produced.

    As a southern native in a state that seems to now staunchly deny its ‘southern-ness’ (Virginia) and with family from the slightly more southern state of North Carolina (the mountains of Western North Carolina, mind you, where the accent is much more pronounced) I can relate to so many of the ‘y’all’ comments. And the you’ns.

    Another contraction I picked up from my mountain-dwelling family; young’ns. (young ones; kids).

    Example: Y’all had best grab your young’ns before one of them gets hurt. (which, when spoken sounds more like: Y’all’d bes’ grab yer youngins ‘fore one of ‘em gets hurt. ;D )

    That being said, I also seem to pick up the accent of the person I happen to be speaking to, as a previous commenter observed. I find this amusing and strange. Anyone have an idea why this is?

    Mr. Ferriss- unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to read your book, but if your blog is any indication of the tone and voice of your book, I’m sure it would be a great read. When I find myself able to afford it, it’s definitely going on the top of my list!! In the meantime, I’m definitely enjoying reading your blog, and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write it.

    ~Amanda

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  19. Hi,
    I just had to say something…My mother is a first generation American, her family is from Norway. They use “youse”, I always wondered where the term came from. I knew it was a derivation of “you” and sometimes “you” “Guys”, but it would be used in various phrasing:
    “Could youse go and get me something from the other room” or “Youse all make me crazy”. I can’t think of any other, but I remember hearing it as I grew up quite a bit from my Grandmother (from Kristiansund Norway) and Grandfather (from Vardu Norway), of course my mother adapted it to her own way of using it as lexicon goes.
    When I got older, I thought it was interesting that other imigrants used this term, esp. in movies (over used and over empathized). No, my grandparents did not land for longer than a few weeks in New York, and did not spend time in NJ. so I often wondered where the term came from: probably Christian Ministries! LOL. Thanks!

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  20. I thought you might be interested to know that Polynesian languages like Maori often have 2 words for just plural “we”. In Maori they are maatou and taatou. That makes it possible to distinguish easily between “me and them” and “me and you and them”. Maori speakers will often finish a group greeting with “Teenaa koutou, teenaa koutou, teenaa taatou katoa”, which literally means “Greetings to you, greetings to you, greetings to all of us.”
    I’m not even going to go into the dual pronouns (for 2 people). So there are actually 3 pronouns that translate to something like “you”, “youse two” and “youse guys”.

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  21. I’m so thankful I live in the South. I don’t know how y’all can say ‘youse’. Looks like ‘grouse’ to me…even though it pronounced entirely different.

    And for the record, even though I know it’s wrong, we mostly put the apostrophe after the ‘a’ like ‘ya’ll’ instead of ‘y’all’. Not sure why, but that’s the most common spelling.

    Love the post!

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  22. As a southerner I can tell you that y’all is NEVER singular. If you are talking to group and consider the group an entity , you use “y’all . ” If you are talking to a group and you are addressing each individual in the group, you use “all y’all.” Never in my days have I heard a southerner address one person with “y’all”. It doesn’t even match the “you all” that “y’all” is a contraction of. It just does not sound right to my southern ears —–

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  23. Couldn’t agree more! I’m from TX, and of course “y’all'”is plural for Pete’s sake!!! Thanks jaegerhund for the clarification on the use of “all y’all” – I never really understood that one…and, to be honest, don’t hear it used all that often.
    Sorry David, never seen it spelled your way before…not here in TX.
    I feel sorry for the rest of you- not having a good English word to say equivalent to “y’all” – its sad, really! ; b LOL!

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  24. I’m glad some real southerners got on the board here and corrected the “ya’ll” situation. Ya’ll as singular is just silly. For the Canadians and Californians (as the comments seem to suggest them using “you guys” most often) Imagine looking at a single person and saying “you guys.” Thats what suggesting ya’ll being singular feels like to a southerner. I am from Northern Kentucky (we have a water tower that says “Florence Y’all” google it :D) and currently live in Texas. I have not yet heard an “all ya’ll” down here but we used it in Kentucky exactly as jaegerhund described. And @David I spell it the same way you do, it seems to be a more “phonetic” ways of spelling it even though its not technically correct.

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  25. Also as an aside, its not quite the same as the ya’ll, youse type of thing but a word that seems (at least to me) to be a very rural or “hickish” word is Reckon. “Well, I reckon I ought head down yonder..” However, my girlfriend is from Ukraine and was friends with some Aussies and she uses the word. It cracked me up the first time I heard it, it just seemed so incongruent. But paying attention to it now, it seems its pretty much a proper word in the UK/Commonwealth countries. If some of the folks from the UK or any former Commonwealth countries care to comment that would be nice :)

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  26. Very good comments Bryce (and everyone actually) —– just to add to Bryce’s aside, some of these seemingly rural, hickish words like “reckon” and “yonder”
    are actually very old words —- the kind you might just find in the works of Mr. Shakespeare himself — “What light through yonder window breaks ? ” Interestingly, one would be closer in accent and vocabulary to hear a rural person from the Appalachians quote Shakespeare than a British actor with a Received Pronunciation. Some of the closest living examples of Elizabethan English is up in them there hills.

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  27. Southerner here…
    Y’all is plural.
    “How’re y’all doin’?”
    If there’s a lot of people, you can say “all y’all” but it sounds weird in some place
    “All y’all are wrong about y’all being singular”
    But y’all would work there too.
    Any other questions about Southern English?

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  28. I can tell you exactly why folks misspell “y’all”. We’re used to putting the apostrophe directly before double Ls. It may be a very common spelling, but it’s incorrect.

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  29. Oh, and all y’all don’t understand the proper usage of “y’all”, but summa y’all do. And, cuz, if you’s [you is] goin’ to’d’store, git me a coke. What kinda coke? Well, I reckon git me a Mountain Dew.

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  30. I’ve concluded that y’all is the most logical solution and incorporated it into my vocabulary a few years ago, despite being from Minnesota. I love your breadth of interests homie.

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  31. well tim, y’all never lived in the south, fer sure! in the deep south, no one uses the word “you;” “y’all” is singular and plural. i moved to east texas from L.A. and i teased my friends a lot about that y’all thing. maybe it’s time for a field trip to mobile…. hahahaha! no, you’d have to be pretty desperate to do that.

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  32. Anyone who is interested should read “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson. HIs book “Made In America” also touches on the subject. Both books are informative and funny.

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  33. You is already plural. It has always been. In fact, the sigular form of “you” and “ye” was “thou”….we dropped singular a long time ago because refering to one person in plural is more respectful – so people thought. (fail) So rather than trying to pluralise the plural. we need to singularise it. How about “you one” for starters.

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  34. Well, I am not sure about anything other than the fact my grandparents were from Norway and “youse” was used around our house quite a it…not certain why!!

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  35. We say “We all” in our English Language in 2013. What’s the difference between “We all” and “You all” . It’s so much easier to say we all. The “you guys” has infested the YouTube beauty community so strongly , it’s virtually impossible to get away from it. There are like what 2 guys (who aren’t rock stars or drag queens) who are interested in makeup, so you what… change the language to accompany like 2 guys who have odd tastes while neglecting the millions of women who are interested in makeup. Women are not “guys” as the term “guy” meant in 2012 English.

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    • Well, BebeLyssious ( Alyssa C.), I have actually posted a reply to a Youtube video made by a girl about makeup beauty secrets and pointed out that we are not “guys” unless she’s talking to some male cross-dressers that like makeup. She got all up and defensive and said “I use that with all my friends and therefore it’s ok because it’s all over the English language” LOL..and she blocked me…so the main problem is not males using it, it’s females using it and saying it ok for themselves and for men to use it. If everyone that wasn’t OK with it would stand up and comment, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I work in IT and my female Manager called everyone “her guys” and “our guys” for department people and “guys” for cables and electric wires and applications….even after I pointed it out. Now I noticed all inanimate objects are called “guys” LOL..The TIDE commercial “cleans better than the other GUY”…it’s disturbing to say the least. I am thinking I’ll call her a GUY from now on, but I might get flack for it..so I have to keep my mouth shut.

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  36. I’m going to throw another colloquialism out here. In the SF Bay Area we say “hella”, as in “There’s hella people saying you guys on this blog”. It started in Oakland and spread around the Bay like wildfire. I also say “you guys” hella often.

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