If you must speak improperly, do it correctly

I’m fascinated by the various dialects of English and have studied them a little in graduate school. I’ve defended the regional use of “you all” or “y’all” as serving a valuable grammatical purpose. Most languages have a plural form of the second person pronoun.

Actually “you” IS the plural form, which explains why it always takes a plural verb: “you ARE,” like “they are”; “you eat,” like “they eat,” but “he eats.” What happened is that we lost the second person SINGULAR form, which was “thou.” As in other European languages, the second person singular–Spanish “tu,” German “du,” English,”thou”–acquired also a social meaning, so that it began to be applied as a “familiar” pronoun, reserved for either social inferiors or to people you are very close to. That Luther in his vernacular translation of the Bible used “du” to refer to God–something echoed in the English Bible’s “thou”–meant that though He is the high King of heaven and earth, He is also our close, intimate, heavenly father.

Anyway, if we can’t bring the singular “thou” back (with its conjugations, “thee” and “thy”), we could at least make room for a new plural. In American English, the South has “you all”; some Northern dialects make the pronoun plural the same way we make nouns plural, by adding an “s,” resulting in “youse.” In some Southern dialects–I have heard it in Arkansas and Texas–there is the contraction of “you ones”: “you’uns.”

Last week, though, I heard “you all” used as a SINGULAR! A fellow-Virginian passed me in the parking lot and greeted me with “How are y’all?” Now that is incorrect! It’s using a plural for a singular! When we speak improperly–in the sense of using a non-standard dialect–we must be sure to do so correctly!

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  • Randall E

    True, but I wonder if he was using the honorific plural?

  • Randall E

    True, but I wonder if he was using the honorific plural?

  • Pete

    Or perhaps he was a Virginian with diplopia?

  • Pete

    Or perhaps he was a Virginian with diplopia?

  • Maybe he meant “you and your family.”

  • Maybe he meant “you and your family.”

  • Karyn

    I enjoyed these entertaining and clever observations. It is obvious the Professor of Literature is within his element in this piece. 🙂

  • Karyn

    I enjoyed these entertaining and clever observations. It is obvious the Professor of Literature is within his element in this piece. 🙂

  • Dan Kempin

    Dr. Veith,

    I was once instructed by a southerner that “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural.

    That means you were incorrect about the correct use of improper grammar.

  • Dan Kempin

    Dr. Veith,

    I was once instructed by a southerner that “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural.

    That means you were incorrect about the correct use of improper grammar.

  • jrr

    Ditto to Dan. Being a yankee by birth and a foreigner to this dialect, I was told y’all is singular and all y’all is plural.

  • jrr

    Ditto to Dan. Being a yankee by birth and a foreigner to this dialect, I was told y’all is singular and all y’all is plural.

  • Larry Wright

    Dan & JRR
    I was specifically corrected by a person from Mississippi that the only people who talk about the Civil War and who say “All Y’all” are Northerners. I was told that there is no such thing as “All Y’all” just “Y’all.”

    Now, tell me, should that period in the last quote be inside the quotation or not? I had various Seminary professors disagree on that one too…;-) I learned not only to use common sense but to use the grammar and punctuation appropriate for the audience who was grading the paper.

  • Larry Wright

    Dan & JRR
    I was specifically corrected by a person from Mississippi that the only people who talk about the Civil War and who say “All Y’all” are Northerners. I was told that there is no such thing as “All Y’all” just “Y’all.”

    Now, tell me, should that period in the last quote be inside the quotation or not? I had various Seminary professors disagree on that one too…;-) I learned not only to use common sense but to use the grammar and punctuation appropriate for the audience who was grading the paper.

  • I’m sure the fellow Virginian meant to imply that he was asking not only about you, but also about the well being of your family!

  • I’m sure the fellow Virginian meant to imply that he was asking not only about you, but also about the well being of your family!

  • Larry Wright,
    i can’t find my copy of Turabian right now, but generally speaking periods are on the inside of quotations, exclamations and question marks outside, and I don’t know why.

  • Larry Wright,
    i can’t find my copy of Turabian right now, but generally speaking periods are on the inside of quotations, exclamations and question marks outside, and I don’t know why.

  • I have a feeling the “all y’all” defined as the plural of “y’all” is an exaggeration brought about by a certain redneck comedian. Growing up in central Texas, I don’t recall anybody using “all y’all” but I heard enough “y’all” I still use it even after moving away. However, I have heard mentioned that the phrase “all y’all” was a means of placing emphasis making sure the listeners understood they were included in the “y’all”.

    The use of “you’uns” must be specific to the region of Texas bordering Arkansas because I never heard it before.

  • I have a feeling the “all y’all” defined as the plural of “y’all” is an exaggeration brought about by a certain redneck comedian. Growing up in central Texas, I don’t recall anybody using “all y’all” but I heard enough “y’all” I still use it even after moving away. However, I have heard mentioned that the phrase “all y’all” was a means of placing emphasis making sure the listeners understood they were included in the “y’all”.

    The use of “you’uns” must be specific to the region of Texas bordering Arkansas because I never heard it before.

  • Dan Kempin

    Larry, #7,

    Now this is funny. Are three Yankees going to debate about the conventions of the South?

  • Dan Kempin

    Larry, #7,

    Now this is funny. Are three Yankees going to debate about the conventions of the South?

  • Booklover

    I, too, would assume that the “How are y’all?” was a query about the well-being of me and my family, or me and my people, a very welcome query in this age of the individual.

    My grammar pet peeve of the moment is: “She gave it to you and I.”

  • Booklover

    I, too, would assume that the “How are y’all?” was a query about the well-being of me and my family, or me and my people, a very welcome query in this age of the individual.

    My grammar pet peeve of the moment is: “She gave it to you and I.”

  • tonto2

    The only time I ever heard the term “you’uns” was in the presence of “Yankees” or when I visited Pennsylvania. After living in Texas, Virginia and Arkansas since the 1950’s, I never heard anyone from those areas use the term “you’uns”.

  • tonto2

    The only time I ever heard the term “you’uns” was in the presence of “Yankees” or when I visited Pennsylvania. After living in Texas, Virginia and Arkansas since the 1950’s, I never heard anyone from those areas use the term “you’uns”.

  • Rev. Alexander Ring

    I heard “All y’all” plenty of times growing up in Dallas. It is an emphatic of “y’all”, as when a teacher might say, “All y’all need to stop talking and get to work.” In Minnesota, the same teacher would say “All of you….”

    And I now am slowly indoctrinating my Latin students in Washington, as we conjugate verbs saying “I love, you love, he loves, we love, y’all love, they love.”

  • Rev. Alexander Ring

    I heard “All y’all” plenty of times growing up in Dallas. It is an emphatic of “y’all”, as when a teacher might say, “All y’all need to stop talking and get to work.” In Minnesota, the same teacher would say “All of you….”

    And I now am slowly indoctrinating my Latin students in Washington, as we conjugate verbs saying “I love, you love, he loves, we love, y’all love, they love.”

  • Carl Vehse

    Shouldn’t that be “I love, you love, he loves, we love, y’all luv, they love”?

  • Carl Vehse

    Shouldn’t that be “I love, you love, he loves, we love, y’all luv, they love”?

  • To further your amusement, let me share that where I grew up (near Pittsburgh, PA), “you” was singular and “you’ns” (pronounced with one syllable, like “yunz”) was plural.

  • To further your amusement, let me share that where I grew up (near Pittsburgh, PA), “you” was singular and “you’ns” (pronounced with one syllable, like “yunz”) was plural.

  • The Jungle Cat

    Usually, when someone refers to a singular “you” in the plural, it is a sign of enormous respect; at least that is the way it is in Anglo-Saxon, so I suspect that the person who passed you in the parking lot and said “y’all” was just trying to be polite.

  • The Jungle Cat

    Usually, when someone refers to a singular “you” in the plural, it is a sign of enormous respect; at least that is the way it is in Anglo-Saxon, so I suspect that the person who passed you in the parking lot and said “y’all” was just trying to be polite.

  • Oh, Dr. Veith. “Non-standard dialect”. I don’t know where to begin.

    There’s nothing “improper” about “y’all” (or any other manner in which a distinction has been made between the singular and plural second-person pronoun).

    And growing up in Dallas (with family in Arkansas), I never heard “you’uns”. Sounds Pittsburghian to me.

    As for those who think that “y’all” is singular, y’all just ain’t right.

    I’m mostly with Alexander (@14) on “all y’all” being an emphatic of “y’all”. “All y’all” can also be used to refer to a larger group. Consider that there are 20 people in the room. You’re talking to one person, and you say, “You, do this.” Then you want to address these five people in a group over here, so you say, “Y’all do this.” And then turning your attention to the whole room, you say, “All y’all need to be more quiet! I’m fixin’ to get angry.”

    And Carl (@15), Carl … do you have so little love for the grammar of your adopted land?

  • Oh, Dr. Veith. “Non-standard dialect”. I don’t know where to begin.

    There’s nothing “improper” about “y’all” (or any other manner in which a distinction has been made between the singular and plural second-person pronoun).

    And growing up in Dallas (with family in Arkansas), I never heard “you’uns”. Sounds Pittsburghian to me.

    As for those who think that “y’all” is singular, y’all just ain’t right.

    I’m mostly with Alexander (@14) on “all y’all” being an emphatic of “y’all”. “All y’all” can also be used to refer to a larger group. Consider that there are 20 people in the room. You’re talking to one person, and you say, “You, do this.” Then you want to address these five people in a group over here, so you say, “Y’all do this.” And then turning your attention to the whole room, you say, “All y’all need to be more quiet! I’m fixin’ to get angry.”

    And Carl (@15), Carl … do you have so little love for the grammar of your adopted land?

  • Bruce Gee

    Youse guys must not a been raised up here in this here country.

  • Bruce Gee

    Youse guys must not a been raised up here in this here country.

  • Bruce Gee

    Sorry, that musta been “dis here country”.

  • Bruce Gee

    Sorry, that musta been “dis here country”.

  • Bruce (@20), come here once. Lemme tell you something.

    Okay that “once” thing is the only thing I know about youse guys’ way of talking. Although I have noticed that nearly all of my Midwest-raised pastors have a bizarre tendency to use the phrase, “How many times haven’t you [heard/done this thing]?” Which makes no sense. How many times haven’t I heard that? Um, an infinite number? And they use it to mean exactly “How many times have you …” or “Haven’t you ever …” I don’t get it.

  • Bruce (@20), come here once. Lemme tell you something.

    Okay that “once” thing is the only thing I know about youse guys’ way of talking. Although I have noticed that nearly all of my Midwest-raised pastors have a bizarre tendency to use the phrase, “How many times haven’t you [heard/done this thing]?” Which makes no sense. How many times haven’t I heard that? Um, an infinite number? And they use it to mean exactly “How many times have you …” or “Haven’t you ever …” I don’t get it.

  • Joe

    In my southern exposure (Basic training at Ft. Jackson S.C. and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee) was limited in time but broad in scope. I was exposed to fellers from all over the South and based on that exposure, I think tODD’s explanation of the two ways that “All y’all” can be used is correct – or at least uniform in its incorrectness.

    But what do I know. I come from up der by Oconto Falls in Wisconsin; pretnear the U.P., ya know.

  • Joe

    In my southern exposure (Basic training at Ft. Jackson S.C. and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee) was limited in time but broad in scope. I was exposed to fellers from all over the South and based on that exposure, I think tODD’s explanation of the two ways that “All y’all” can be used is correct – or at least uniform in its incorrectness.

    But what do I know. I come from up der by Oconto Falls in Wisconsin; pretnear the U.P., ya know.

  • E-Raj

    tODD @ 21:
    I totally agree with you on the incorrect use of “haven’t you” by certain individuals. I’ve heard it before, but not that much in my particular area of the Midwest (Chicago). It’s just wrong. It’s similar to when people say “I could care less” when they really mean they “couldn’t” care less.

  • E-Raj

    tODD @ 21:
    I totally agree with you on the incorrect use of “haven’t you” by certain individuals. I’ve heard it before, but not that much in my particular area of the Midwest (Chicago). It’s just wrong. It’s similar to when people say “I could care less” when they really mean they “couldn’t” care less.

  • Booklover

    Bruce, are you a No Dak?? Because you sound an awful lot like them or us (Montanans).

  • Booklover

    Bruce, are you a No Dak?? Because you sound an awful lot like them or us (Montanans).

  • Mark Veenman

    As long as you don’t start talking to yourself in the 2nd person plural then you’re still ok. (To self: “Hmmm. What are all y’all doin’ today, like?”).
    I’ve never heard anything like it, although in backwoods Ontario one will hear often “how are yous?”. And in Newfoundland you’ll hear “I’se de buy” (I’m the guy”) but that’s a separate language altogether.

  • Mark Veenman

    As long as you don’t start talking to yourself in the 2nd person plural then you’re still ok. (To self: “Hmmm. What are all y’all doin’ today, like?”).
    I’ve never heard anything like it, although in backwoods Ontario one will hear often “how are yous?”. And in Newfoundland you’ll hear “I’se de buy” (I’m the guy”) but that’s a separate language altogether.

  • wayne .pelling

    Booklover interesting comment about how you refer to a bloke from North Dakota .we have the similar labelling over here.
    Queenslanders -Banana benders because of the tropical climate they can grow that fruit in great numbers.They also speak slower than the rest of Australia
    People from New South Wales are called New South Welshmen and speak very quickly
    Victorians are called just that or VICS
    People from Tasmania are called Taswegians (should be tasmaniacs)
    South Australians are labelled Croweaters because of the high numbers of that avian species in that State,and tend to speka with a bit of an English accent
    West Australians called Sandgropers due to having more arid desert than the other states
    and people in the Northern Territory are just called ‘Territorians
    When a person in Victoria says they are going swimming they call their swimming attire “bathers” or “togs” whilst a New South Welshman would call them “cossies”meaning swimming costume.

  • wayne .pelling

    Booklover interesting comment about how you refer to a bloke from North Dakota .we have the similar labelling over here.
    Queenslanders -Banana benders because of the tropical climate they can grow that fruit in great numbers.They also speak slower than the rest of Australia
    People from New South Wales are called New South Welshmen and speak very quickly
    Victorians are called just that or VICS
    People from Tasmania are called Taswegians (should be tasmaniacs)
    South Australians are labelled Croweaters because of the high numbers of that avian species in that State,and tend to speka with a bit of an English accent
    West Australians called Sandgropers due to having more arid desert than the other states
    and people in the Northern Territory are just called ‘Territorians
    When a person in Victoria says they are going swimming they call their swimming attire “bathers” or “togs” whilst a New South Welshman would call them “cossies”meaning swimming costume.

  • I have definitely heard “you’uns” growing up in eastern Oklahoma. A lot of times and by everyday folks not trying to put anyone on. I have also heard it from north Texans. And from Arkansawyers. As I recall, in my studies of dialects, that plural form comes from there.

    It is true that other languages have different levels of plurals–one for groups of two, another for groups of three or more. So this account of “y’all” and “all y’all” just demonstrates the grammatical sophistication of southerners.

  • I have definitely heard “you’uns” growing up in eastern Oklahoma. A lot of times and by everyday folks not trying to put anyone on. I have also heard it from north Texans. And from Arkansawyers. As I recall, in my studies of dialects, that plural form comes from there.

    It is true that other languages have different levels of plurals–one for groups of two, another for groups of three or more. So this account of “y’all” and “all y’all” just demonstrates the grammatical sophistication of southerners.

  • kerner

    In Milwaukee there are no drinking fountains. There ARE water fountains, but those are large structures with statues in them and into which people throw coins and make wishes; you would never drink from one. However, if you want a drink of water, you can find a bubbler in almost any public building.

  • kerner

    In Milwaukee there are no drinking fountains. There ARE water fountains, but those are large structures with statues in them and into which people throw coins and make wishes; you would never drink from one. However, if you want a drink of water, you can find a bubbler in almost any public building.

  • molloaggie

    The first I heard of this mess was when Disney used y’all as a singular twice in their Princess and the Frog movie. I’ve grown up in Texas and all y’all refers to a group like tODD says. Y’all is never singular.

    I’m just thrilled that “they” is becoming acceptable as a singular again. It’s all those dang Latinists fault for messing around with our Anglo-Saxon language.

  • molloaggie

    The first I heard of this mess was when Disney used y’all as a singular twice in their Princess and the Frog movie. I’ve grown up in Texas and all y’all refers to a group like tODD says. Y’all is never singular.

    I’m just thrilled that “they” is becoming acceptable as a singular again. It’s all those dang Latinists fault for messing around with our Anglo-Saxon language.

  • Walter Steele

    And then there is the mega-plural: all-you-all. I’ve even heard that. Hast thou?

  • Walter Steele

    And then there is the mega-plural: all-you-all. I’ve even heard that. Hast thou?

  • sally

    Y’all is always plural. Always. Movie or TV scripts that use it as a singular are so irritating. As are the actors with bad Southern accents.

  • sally

    Y’all is always plural. Always. Movie or TV scripts that use it as a singular are so irritating. As are the actors with bad Southern accents.

  • joespi

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_American_English

    Use of the contraction y’all as the second person plural pronoun.[9] Its uncombined form – you all – is used less frequently.[10]
    · When speaking about a group, y’all is general (I know y’all) and is used to address groups of people one knows and whose members one knows as a group, whereas all y’all is much more specific and means that one knows each and every person in the group, individually (“I know all y’all.”) Y’all can also be used with the standard “-s” possessive.

    · Y’all is distinctly separate from the singular you. The statement “I gave y’all my payment last week,” is more precise than “I gave you my payment last week.” You (if interpreted as singular) could imply the payment was given directly to the person being spoken to – when that may not be the case.

    · Some people misinterpret the phrase “all y’all” as meaning that Southerners use the word y’all as singular and all y’all as plural. However, all y’all is used to specify that all of the members of the second person plural are included (i.e., it functions similarly to “all of you” in standard English), that is “all y’all” as opposed to “some of y’all”

  • joespi

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_American_English

    Use of the contraction y’all as the second person plural pronoun.[9] Its uncombined form – you all – is used less frequently.[10]
    · When speaking about a group, y’all is general (I know y’all) and is used to address groups of people one knows and whose members one knows as a group, whereas all y’all is much more specific and means that one knows each and every person in the group, individually (“I know all y’all.”) Y’all can also be used with the standard “-s” possessive.

    · Y’all is distinctly separate from the singular you. The statement “I gave y’all my payment last week,” is more precise than “I gave you my payment last week.” You (if interpreted as singular) could imply the payment was given directly to the person being spoken to – when that may not be the case.

    · Some people misinterpret the phrase “all y’all” as meaning that Southerners use the word y’all as singular and all y’all as plural. However, all y’all is used to specify that all of the members of the second person plural are included (i.e., it functions similarly to “all of you” in standard English), that is “all y’all” as opposed to “some of y’all”

  • Joshua Holeczy

    Here in Pittsburgh we use “yinz” (or “yunz”) as the plural of you.
    People in other parts of the country make fun of us, the way we make fun of the “y’all” crowd. I hate all accent of any kind, but I’ve been defending people’s created plurals for you and blamed it on the english language for not having one. Now you’ve set me straight. Thank you.

  • Joshua Holeczy

    Here in Pittsburgh we use “yinz” (or “yunz”) as the plural of you.
    People in other parts of the country make fun of us, the way we make fun of the “y’all” crowd. I hate all accent of any kind, but I’ve been defending people’s created plurals for you and blamed it on the english language for not having one. Now you’ve set me straight. Thank you.

  • > Now you’ve set me straight.

    Shouldn’t that be, “Now yinz’ve set me straight”?

  • > Now you’ve set me straight.

    Shouldn’t that be, “Now yinz’ve set me straight”?