Believe it or not, I’m from Oklahoma. One of the first things I did when I moved to Indiana in 2007 was to try to drop any idiosyncratic “Okie” terms that made me sound “different” or “other” from my newly adopted Midwestern homeland.
While I will always proud of the fact that there’s an entire musical devoted to my birth state, people used to give me a hard time when I would casually drop “fixin’ to” or “golly” into my everyday lexicon.
While I have shed those phrases, I want to defend the contraction “y’all.” Hear me out.
I know when you hear someone say “y’all,” you may picture a person riding a horse while lassoing an armadillo, but stay with me. When we were forced to take two years of a foreign language in high school, we learned several different ways to say “you.” We learned formal first-person “you.” We learned informal first-person “you,” along with a second-person or plural “you.” English doesn’t have a second-person you, although it used to.
We used to have a word for plural “you,” and you (all) can still find it in the King James Version of the Bible; it’s “ye.”
“Ye” was the plural of the word “thou.” Believe it or not, in England “you” used to be the formal way to address someone, while “thou” and “thee” were informal. These words fell out of style, and “you” took over as the preferred way to address someone else. With it, “you” took the singular and the plural second-person terms in the English language, making it difficult to distinguish whether someone is referring to one person or many people.
Back to “y’all.” “Y’all” is a grammatically correct contraction of “you” and “all.” It also addresses people in this now-defunct second-person plural “you.” I know other regions of the U.S. have their own local words, including “you’uns,” “youse” and even “yinz,” but “y’all” seems to be the most widely used of all these options.
Do you know what phrase I don’t love as a replacement for the lack of a second person “you” in English? “You guys.” “You guys” is a bit clunky and has some undertones of gender-clunkiness. Also, “you guys” is two syllables, while “y’all” is one. As Americans love brevity, “y’all” gets the advantage here.
Now, back to my Okie origins: allow me to differentiate “y’all” as the plural “you” and referring to all people: when you’re talking about two or more people, you say “y’all.” When you want to address every person in the room, you say “all y’all.”
Okay, maybe that’s not going to catch on, but I do think “y’all” deserves to be seen as a viable and grammatically correct way to address multiple people.
Give it a try, y’all.
Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.