Y’all, the Inclusive Pronoun.

I know we’ve talked about “y’all” a lot (2004, 2005, 2007, 2018, and earlier this year), but Maud Newton has written about it for today’s NY Times Sunday Magazine (archived), and dammit, I like Maud Newton (I was stealing links from her as far back as 2003) and I enjoyed her take on it, so I’m going to quote some bits here:

Growing up in Miami, I dreaded being told that I sounded like a hick. In my teens, a boyfriend pointed out that I tended to say “sow” (as in the female pig) in place of “saw.” But most verbal indicators of my Texas roots fell away in nursery school, after my family moved from Dallas and I took to using the word “toilet” rather than “commode.” […] My father […] mostly ignored the changes in my speech, but one thing I said made him clench with fury: “you guys.” The term was “y’all,” he said, tightening his jaw. Little girls were not guys.

She says “y’all” “seemed to reek of forced cheer and hidden demands that I associated with my father. It was tangled up with his tiresome rules about gender,” and continues:

My assumptions about “y’all” were muddled at best. Its origins are mysterious: While the term could have originated with Scottish-Irish immigrants, there are reasons to suspect it derives at least in part from the vernacular of enslaved Black people, whose influence on Southern speech is undeniable but difficult to trace. Though a Southern term, it’s emblematic of the messiness and heterogeneity of American English — a language both inspiringly polyglot and marked by an ugly history.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that. My resistance to “y’all” began to fade only in my mid-20s, when I lived in Tallahassee after law school. My apartment was 17 miles from Florida’s border with Georgia, and I practiced law alongside men who took offense when, after a full day opposing them in depositions, I declined their offers to carry my briefcase. My last name was hyphenated, too: a true “you’re not from around here” demerit. But in grocery stores and coffee shops, on the street and in the library, everyone — Black and white, queer and straight, working-class and wealthy — used “y’all,” and soon I did, too. I began to enjoy its warmth and inclusivity, the way everyone was equally gathered under its umbrella. I had to admit: It didn’t feel sexist, racist or classist. It felt friendly and — most of the time — genuine.

When eventually I moved to Brooklyn, I was relieved to live in a place where no one tried to carry my bag at the end of a workday, and the Civil War monuments I passed honored the Union rather than the Confederacy. I reverted to the “you guys” of my youth, conforming to dominant New Yawker ways, but it wasn’t the satisfying linguistic homecoming I’d expected. It felt a little brusque, and though it was a betrayal of my 8-year-old self, I had to admit: I didn’t identify as a guy.

Living in the city, meanwhile, upended all my conceptions about what my ancestors’ preferred collective form of address meant. Far from being a niche Southern phrase, it already had a home here. I might not hear it much in the Brooklyn neighborhoods where I’ve lived — Williamsburg, Greenpoint, then Kensington — but it resounded in Bed-Stuy shops, a favorite Ft. Greene barbecue spot (R.I.P.), a street between City College and the A train. “Y’all” had come north in the Great Migration, alongside collards and cornbread. Now it has spread not just to states above the Mason-Dixon line but as far as Australia and near as my current home in Queens. Far from the oppressive ethos I once imagined, “y’all” represents the best of American vernacular.

As someone with Southern roots myself, I can’t disagree.


  1. cuchuflete says

    Having grown up in NY State and points north, y’all has always sounded slightly alien to me, but it’s in no way objectionable. Rather, it seems friendly and nicely informal, just like “you guys”. When I first heard that used as a genderless, inclusive expression, I was taken aback.
    I got over the shock quickly, as it was in constant use among kids from Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin etc. That was in the UP (Upper Peninsular) of Michigan, early 1960s. That gender-free plural has spread eastward since then. I now hear it in Maine.

    Unlike y’all, you guys is never singular, at least in my geriatric circles.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Though I have never myself been addressed with singular “y’all”, if I were, I would appreciate the implied compliment to my psychic wholeness.

  3. jack morava says

    perhaps repetitive, but:

    “Y’all?” Oh, yes, please! “Thanks all y’all for y’all. I’m taking y’all. I love y’all.” Because “y’all” is the best, most inclusive second-person, plural pronoun in the English-speaking world. Thank you, the South. What an ally.


  4. An anecdote from earlier this year in which a native y’all user clearly considered using it for a single referent to be an error.

  5. As an English transplant who spent many years in the DC area, which has a little tinge of southernness about it, I picked up y’all and would use it on occasion. Except that I said ‘you all,’ because Standards Must Be Maintained, of course.

  6. cuchuflete says

    “ Dissociative identity disorder
    Also called: DID, multiple personality disorder

    A disorder characterized by the presence of two or more distinct personality states.
    Dissociative identity disorder, previously called multiple personality disorder, is usually a reaction to trauma as a way to help a person avoid bad memories.”

    For a therapist’s first meeting with a patient, the ability of y’all to be singular or plural could be most useful.

  7. Compare “youse” or “yous”, a demotic marked plural in Austral lands. And I find one questionably plural occurrence in a Ulysses farrago (at “Oxen of the Sun”):

    “A make, mister. The Denzille lane boys. Hell, blast ye! Scoot. Righto, Isaacs, shove em out of the bleeding limelight. Yous join us, dear sir? No hentrusion in life. Lou heap good man.”

  8. But this “yous” is singular, innit?

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    O’Casey is good for plural yous:
    Mrs. Boyle: Amn’t I nicely handicapped with the whole o’ yous! I don’t know what any o’ yous ud do without your ma.
    Juno and the Paycock, Act 1.

  10. My last name was hyphenated, too: a true “you’re not from around here” demerit.

    But if her first name had been hyphenated, she might have had a fair chance at fitting in. Some 20+ years ago, my wife and I stopped briefly in Jacksonville on our way to the Florida Keys. The way people talked there sounded about as Southern as Charleston. A few months later, the Florida Panhandle, of which Tallahassee is the largest city, would deliver the presidency to George Bush II (which a little help from the Supreme Court).

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    The “not identifying as a guy” angle sort of misses what is so interesting about this construction: the same people who freely use vocative “you guys” to address an all-female group (or a mixed-sex group, but the all-female situation is most instructive) are much less likely to use “those guys” in third-party reference to an all-female group and even less likely to use “that guy” to refer to an individual female. The epicene vocative “dude” used to address females likewise seems to happily co-exist with marked-as-male “dude” used in third-party reference.

  12. ə de vivre says

    I’ve always understood the singular use of “y’all” to be a give-away of a non-native y’aller affecting a Southern accent.

  13. Rick Ohayon says

    I am sorry that all y’all don’t get it. “Y’all is the singular form and “all y’all” is the plural form.”

  14. When John Stewart said that Ted Haggard had been caught “smoking meth and fucking dudes,” that definitely meant male “dudes.”

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    Maybe you could designate singular y’all/yous as polite (in practice sometimes jocular, self-effacing, ironic, etc.) forms.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Is there any sign of singular “y’all” actually being used as a specifically polite form (thus completing the great cycle)?

  17. I’ve always understood the singular use of “y’all” to be a give-away of a non-native y’aller affecting a Southern accent.

    That’s certainly my understanding. There are doubtless occasional outliers, people being the perverse creatures they are.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    PP: Maybe you could designate singular y’all/yous as polite (in practice sometimes jocular, self-effacing, ironic, etc.) forms.

    I agree. If y’all is used (“non-natively” or not) to address one person, I would say that it is not necessarily clear that only that person is meant. Much depends on the individual context. Example: “y’all come round any time” might mean the person addressed, and / or people (some family, some friends of that person) not clearly included, but not clearly excluded either.

    It is not necessary to spell out the meaning even in a given context. That’s one of the purposes of politeness – to avoid pinning yourself down, and other people too.

    Example: that French on, which can mean “we” or “one”. I’ve been reading a lot of French novels lately (no, not that kind, but Annie Ernaux, Simenon and such) and paying special attention to the use of on and nous in dialog as well a narrative. My impression is that nous is avoided wherever possible, for reasons unclear to me. That is, compared with my anglophone expectations. I’m just not going to fret about it too much, dammit.

  19. David Marjanović says

    The epicene vocative “dude” used to address females

    Does that even exist? In my limited experience, it first became an exclamation not directed at anyone, and then it naturally spread to being used in conversations with those of the female persuasion.

    A few years ago there was a court case where a judge didn’t understand that oida* was an exclamation (often a quite mild expression of weariness) and mistook it as a disrespectful address to a policeman. It translates as “dude” pretty well.

    * i.e. Alter, literally “old masculine one”, borrowed from Viennese dia- into Viennese mesolect

    My impression is that nous is avoided wherever possible, for reasons unclear to me.

    Somehow, the spoken language has decided that nous is the free-standing emphasized pronoun, like moi, while on is the verb prefix, like je: Nous – on fait pas ça, nous.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Vocative dude addressed to females was discussed a bit in this 2011 thread, with some Hattics who lacked personal familiarity with the usage coping with their puzzlement by constructing various theories that it must be something else. https://languagehat.com/dudine/

    I think there may still be some regional variation within the U.S. (and perhaps variation in other demographic dimensions as well) with how frequently/naturally it is used with female addressees. It does in my experience feel most naturally addressed to a female by female speaker – a male using it to address a female seems a bit off although it’s not non-existent. Also, the use in addressing a stranger (possibly in a hostile tone), as in “Watch where you’re going, dude” after a near collision, seems more likely to be reserved for male addressees* whereas the use for female addressees is more likely to be only between friends. So I guess “epicene” is probably overstating the case. Is there a good polysyllabic adjective meaning “in use to address both sexes, but with more restricted context/scope for one than the other”?

    I think the “exclamation” sense of “Dude!” without an obvious addressee post-dates the vocative sense (although not necessarily the vocative-for-females sense**) and may have originally started as a schtick in some comedy movie of the late ’80’s or perhaps early ’90’s?

    *To be fair, my late first wife would use it in a hostile tone for addressees of sometimes-unknown sex, i.e. when vituperating at the driver of another car who had cut her off on the highway and could not actually hear her vituperating. But perhaps she was assuming bad/annoying/overaggressive drivers to be default-male unless and until shown to be otherwise?

    **Someone in that 2011 thread indicated the vocative-with-females sense was in their experience around 15 years old (= 1996) and my own experience with it is certainly not earlier than that.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    the spoken language has decided that nous is the free-standing emphasized pronoun, like moi, while on is the verb prefix

    Aha, thanks. It was the “verb prefix” nous that I meant was being avoided. Nous ne faisons pas ça is more often seen than heard – depending on who you hang with.

  22. But this “yous” is singular, innit?

    That’s why I wrote, concerning Joyce’s yousage, “one questionably plural occurrence”. In fact it is construable as plural:

    “Yous join us, dear sir?”

    Sir may here be asked to respond on behalf of others. This meaning:

    “Will you all be joining us, Bloom?”

    Then again, yous as a singular (especially with sir in the vicinity) should not surprise us. Singular vous, you, and the like give solid precedent in European languages.

  23. a judge didn’t understand that oida was an exclamation

    In Louisiana supreme court there was a similar case of (in this instance) deliberate misunderstanding. Some plain-spoken American in police custody uttered something along the lines “just give me a lawyer, dawg” which the court cheerfully interpreted as “lawyer dog” and ruled that police is under no obligation to supply a suspect with such an animal.

  24. Dammit, I like you too!! it is always a thrill to be cited here.

  25. Aw, shucks! It’s a regular mutual admiration society!

  26. “Youse” is often heard in colloquial speech in the UK to refer to you, plural. Or put another way, y’all, which we don’t say. I don’t like “you guys” – but that’s just my personal, irrational pet peeve.

  27. @Eliza: do you not use “you lot”? That seems to be the usual form in (my corner of) SE England, though younger MLE speakers do indeed say “y’all”

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