On Thursday, the Atlantic published a piece on one of the most pressing linguistic problems of our age: the lack of a widely accepted gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun. For years, women and trans and gender-nonconforming folks have dreaded the jocular guys that is the distressingly universal choice when attempting to casually address a group of people. As the Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker writes, guys is a “word with an originally male meaning that is frequently used to refer to people who don’t [identify as such],” and as linguistic norms shift away from their historically male center, you guys is facing a well-deserved phaseout.
But as corporate honchos and local bartenders alike work to make their everyday language more inclusive, they’re faced with the very real limits of English. Unlike the French vous or the Spanish ustedes, there’s little in the way of a standard gender-neutral second-person plural when it comes to English, leaving individuals to choose between a bevy of slightly stilted alternatives. As Pinsker writes, “The alternatives to guys tend to have downsides of their own.”
Folks—inclusive and warm, but a little affected and forced. Friends—fine in social contexts, strange at work. People—too often pushy and impersonal. Team—its sense of camaraderie wears out with constant use. One might cobble together a mix of pronouns to deploy in different scenarios, but no one term can do it all.
But Pinsker has another option for us to consider: What about y’all? Warm, friendly, and lyrical, y’all is objectively superior not only to all the aforementioned pronouns but to its original component words, you and all. It rolls off the tongue in ways that no other alternative does, it’s economical, and unlike friends, people, or team, it doesn’t immediately signal to listeners that you’ve planned the way you are going this address the group. Y’all also takes on additional grammatical labor like a champ, giving rise to beautifully efficient contraction like y’all’d’ve (you all would have) or y’all’ll (you all will). While there’s some debate on where the apostrophe goes (it’s between the y and the all, duh), y’all provides an uncontroversial and elegant solution to one of English’s worst shortcomings.
So why hasn’t y’all taken its proper place in our collective lexicon? According to John McWhorter, a Columbia linguist whom Pinsker interviewed (and who hosts a podcast about language with Slate called Lexicon Valley) the answer is, as it is to most questions, racism. Y’all is considered too informal because of its association with traditionally derided American subcultures. McWhorter told Pinsker that it’s unlikely that y’all will ever be widely adopted “because it’s associated with two things: the South and black people.” To which I would say: not with that attitude!
In the years I’ve been waxing poetic on all the merits of y’all, I’ve heard that people weirdly hesitate to use the word because they would feel like culture vultures, appropriating either black slang or the language of the South. And yet this is one of the only words where that kind of hesitation seems to hold any sway. If the larger American culture can take on Southern phrases like “That’s the pot calling the kettle black” or black slang like lit, shade, bae, basic, fo shizzle, etc., then they can certainly start employing y’all on a regular and consistent basis.
If anybody gets defensive over white northerners using y’all, it’s most likely because those same white northerners teased them for using it in the past. The way to get over that is not to abstain from using the word, but to stop deriding its use and join in!
A word of caution, though. Y’all is a powerful word, and one that’s easy to abuse. Consider a common rookie mistake like referring to one person as y’all and messing up the subject-verb agreement, as in “What is y’all doing?” Y’all is inherently plural and should always be treated as such. Do: Turbo charge y’all, and refer to a large group as all y’all. Don’t: Use it in the singular. I’m sure y’all’ll get the hang of it soon enough.