Y’all is a subject pronoun that addresses two or more people. It’s the contraction of “you” and “all.” From Texas to Virginia to Florida, it’s usually southerners who say the word y‘all. Americans in other parts of the country generally don’t say it. They’re more likely to use an alternative to y’all such as “you all” or “you guys.” Not only do they not say it, but many American actually look down on y’all, dismissing it as “country” or “uneducated.”
Is Y’all Proper English?
I often get this question from students during English lessons at our Austin language school. Well technically, the answer is no. But that’s only because it’s been labeled as “bad” or “improper” English. Objectively speaking, there’s nothing wrong with it. As I mentioned above, it’s the perfect contraction of “you” and “all.” It even has an apostrophe in the right place.
The real reason the rest of America rejects this pronoun is because they want to avoid sounding “southern.” The thing is…some people in the south speak with a long drawl. It’s especially noticeable in a word like y’all which has no hard syllables. Simply put, most non-southerners don’t want to sound like that.
On a Stack Exchange forum about “y’all,” several commenters make their disdain for the pronoun very clear:
“we only use ‘y’all’ in a comical satirical manner.”
“y’all works great when I’m intentionally being overly-colloquial.”
In other words, they consider y’all to be beneath them, used only by hillbillies in the US South. Of course, it’s entirely possible to say the word without the long drawl. My pronunciation of y’all, for example, is no longer than the length of my other words.
Nonetheless, most people in the non-southern regions of the country simply refuse to say any version of y’all.
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The problem, however, is that no one has suggested a good alternative to y’all. That’s because there is no good alternative to y’all, in my opinion. Despite much of the country’s adamant effort to avoid saying it, no one has thought of a better way of saying it.
Perfectly acceptable if you’re talking to two or more guys. Otherwise, if there’s at least one female in the group, you’re basically calling her a guy…not cool. Yes, you successfully avoided saying y’all and sounding southern. But as a result, you labeled this female with the wrong gender. That’s especially problematic in this gender-sensitive era. Of course, you could’ve avoided the offense and the confusion by simply saying y’all, which is gender neutral.
The main problem with “you all” is that it’s really not an alternative to y’all. It’s actually just a refusal to combine you and all into a contraction. Imagine someone who insists on saying do not, will not and cannot because he refuses to say don’t, won’t and can’t. That’s just silly. Contractions make languages easier and there’s no valid reason to avoid them.
You (with a plural implication)
Again, not a valid alternative to y’all, but rather, a stubborn insistence on avoiding it. Saying “you” to two people can even create some confusing situations. Imagine a marriage counselor saying the following sentence to a couple:
“The issue here is that you are not communicating.”
The therapist means to say that both the man and the woman are not communicating. But because he simply said “you”…and was looking at the man when he said it, the man now thinks only he has the communication problem. And the therapist will then have to clarify that the wife also has a communication problem. Why? Because he refused to use the pronoun that would’ve avoided all this confusion; y’all.
Not even sure where to begin with this one. But I have heard it. It makes no sense. Never say “yous.”
“There is no good alternative to y’all.”
Your Message Is More Important Than Your Words
I’ll take it a step further. I would even recommend that you write the word y’all in your correspondence and maybe even in publications. Some grammarians would consider these suggestions to be blasphemous. And still others would say that’s it’s unwise to use a word that many people view as slang. I understand all that. The last thing I want in a conversation is for my listener to be stuck on my words rather than the point I’m trying to make. I wrote about all this in another post, When Words Get in the Way.
This main point of that post is to emphasize that fancy words are not always helpful. Your rare, fancy word may technically convey the point you’re trying to make. Its definition is precise. But if that word distracts or intimidates your listener, it’s not helping you to get your message across.
Perhaps you’d like to say, for example, that a man’s motives are “antithetical” to the mission of the organization he works for. Problem is, during your next sentence, your listener may be trying to figure out what “antithetical” means. He’s no longer listening to you because he’s stuck on a word you chose to use.
Maybe it would’ve been better to use more common words. The man’s motives are “the opposite of” the mission of the organization, for example. If you’d said this, maybe your listener would still be following your point instead of thinking about your vocabulary.
Is Y’all Proper English?
Along those same lines, it just might be better for you to say y’all in conversations if it avoids distractions. This is especially true if your listener is using the word y’all. That person is clearly comfortable enough with y’all to say it to you. If you then go out of your way to say “you all,” they just might notice it. They might even get a little embarrassed for having said y’all now that you’ve chosen to say it “properly.”
I don’t know about you, but that’s a scenario I try to avoid. Therefore, in this kind of situation, though y’all is not proper English, I would nonetheless suggest that it’s proper for that conversation.
On the contrary, if you’re speaking to two or more people who are not likely to say y’all, then it would be best to use the pronoun they are comfortable with…perhaps you all or even you guys. Again, the point here is to avoid distractions.
As you can see, there’s a question that’s far more important than whether this word or that word is “proper English.” The better question is this; what words are best for this conversation with this person or this audience? The answer to this question will be a better indicator as to which words are proper and which words are not.