English has many features that make it a complicated language to learn, from its irregular spelling to its multitude of variations in grammar, dialect, and pronunciation. One area that English is especially confusing in is in its second person pronoun, you, which officially only has the one form. You is both singular and plural, formal and informal, though the scale of formality is beginning to change, with the introduction of yaas a second person singular informal pronoun. For more on that, watch my last video, which discusses youand ya.
Now the lack of differentiation between singular and plural youcan be awfully confusing for most English speakers. This language requires the use of names or titles to make it clear who the speaker is referring to. I might say, “Could you tell me how to get to Gordon Square?” and if I’m with a number of friends or relatives it won’t necessarily be clear a.) who I’m speaking to and b.) if I’m speaking to one person or to multiple people. For someone like me who has often found using personal names to be a bit too direct, and thus borderline rude, this ambiguity in pronouns makes English all the more difficult.
Different English dialects have determined their own resolutions to this problem. In some parts of Britain, the plural youbecomes you lot, while the older second person plural pronoun yeis still occasionally used in some places. Here in the United States, this country is largely split into three camps: those who use you, those who use you guys, and those who use y’all. Now I’m from the Midwest, and I’ve always said you guys, it’s just how the pronoun has developed. In this instance, guy is a lot like the word men, in that it has both a masculine and a neuter meaning.
You see, at one point in English the word menwas actually two words: the plural of manand the name of the human species as a whole. Today that second version ofmenand its variant mankind has mostly been overtaken by the more observably gender-neutral humanand humanity. This is a change that reflects the social changes in our society, with the rise of gender equality in English-speaking countries like the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. Granted, there’s still a very long way to go to reach true, proper, gender equality, but we’re on that road.
The word guy has a similar dual meaning. It’s both an informal way of saying manand has, at least in the U.S., developed a gender-neutral meaning as an informal way of saying people. Now the word guy comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic who tried to blow up Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot, an event that’s commemorated in the U.K. every 5th November. So, unlike most English pronouns which are of Germanic origin, guycomes from a personal name, which is actually a variation on the Italian Guido. To me, in saying you guysit’s a gender-neutral phrase.
Granted, that’s not how everyone sees it. In an April 2017 edition of the podcast Midwesternishproduced by KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City, the hosts argued that you guysis gendered and too masculine to be used as a generic second person plural pronoun. Instead, they proposed using the Southern American y’allas an alternative. Now, grammatically I can see how this makes sense, but I whole heartedly disagree. To me, as much as y’allmay not be as confusable with any gendered language, it nevertheless is tainted by history. To me, y’allreminds me of the racism, discrimination, and fear that has permeated the American South since the colonial era. It’s a Southern phenomenon that I don’t want to use. And while to me you guys doesn’t sound inherently masculine, considering English’s complicated way of making gendered nouns be spelled and pronounced the same as non-gendered ones, I can understand how to some it might appear misogynistic to call a group of people that include women guys.
So, what’s an alternative? Unless we decide to go back to the old plural ye, which has been thoroughly ridiculed through centuries of hear ye’s, it’s probably best for the moment to just use youand stick with that. Then again, there’s always the Norman French inspired plural sin English, which this language didn’t originally have, so maybe we should just say youse…