Saturday, August 14, 2010

Here's to "Y'all"

I had my very first grammar rant when I was about four years old. (Well, the first one I remember. Apparently my Mom says they started shortly after I began to form sentences.)

We were living in Texas and I had a friend who lived across the street named Leah. We used to fight about who was going to marry Michael Jackson when they grew up. But I digress.

Leah's mom had this thick Texas accent. Since my parents were from California and we'd just recently moved there, we didn't have thick Texas accents in our house. And I found the whole Texas accent thing just baffling anyway. I thought it made people sound stoopid.

This one time, Leah's mom was asking about my family. "How are y'all doing?" she said.

I lost it.

"Do you have ANY idea what an IDIOT you sound like when you say 'y'all?!'" I yelled. "I don't think you're actually dumb, but you really sound dumb. Why don't you talk like a smart person and say 'you guys?'"

I don't remember what she said back. I think she might have just laughed at me (which would not have made me very happy). I was Lily's age, after all, and ranting preschoolers can be very entertaining. (Especially when they're talking about 'idiots.')

Fast forward a few decades.

I use "y'all" almost exclusively when referring to plural second person.


I have reasons.

Primarily, gendered reasons.

Back when I was in elementary school, I was taught, like most people, of a grammatical concept known as "the masculine generic." When the gender of an individual/group is unknown, the masculine term is used. Thus, "his/him/he/man" could all equally mean "She/her/woman." A few years later (high schoolish) when they started teaching "gender neutral" language, I actually used to get offended. "His/Man" didn't refer to "Her/Woman" only because THEY decided it didn't. And their insistence on being all PC only served to BUG me. (Oh, geez. This makes me think of another grammar rant I want to do about PC language! Gah. What's with my grammar obsession lately?!!)

I have changed my mind about this.

Because as I've gotten older, I've realized the main problem: people *say* that they mean "all" people when they say "men," but actually, they're just thinking of men. And so the "masculine generic" is actually the "masculine specific." And we really do a lot better language-wise when we're aware of our specificity.

Some examples:

1) Heart disease. Y'all know the symptoms, right? Pain in the left shoulder, pressure in chest, white clammy skin... But would it surprise you to find out that those are generally only the symptoms of MALE heart attacks? It surprised me. But it's a fairly typical problem of the masculine generic. Grammatical issues are reflective of cultural issues. You can never, ever, remove culture from language, so understanding language and its weaknesses is essentially a process of understanding cultural weakness. And we have traditionally assumed that the experience of the (mostly white, upper-class, straight, non-disabled) male is the *generic* experience of all people when it's not. Thus, a grammatical issue like the masculine generic leads to a wider assumption that there *aren't* major differences between certain groups when there are. And, hence, heart disease is the #1 killer of middle-aged women, many of whom are probably far more terrified of breast cancer, whose risk pales in comparison to that of heart disease.

2) Secretaries and nurses. Consider the following sentences: "A Nurse has a duty to ____ patients." Or, "Part of a secretary's job is to keep track of ____ boss's schedule." What pronoun did you use to fill in the blanks in your head? I'd be willing to bet that even though a big chunk of you were trained, like me, to use the "masculine generic," you thought "her." But notice that I didn't specify a gender in those sentences. According to the theoretical rules of the "masculine generic," if there is no stated/known gender, you should say "he" or "his." But we don't actually think of "his" as representing a generic. And so when faced with jobs that tend to be gender-specific (whether or not they *should* be is a topic for a whole different post), we don't think "his" (which should theoretically mean "her" to us unconsciously if it really *is* generic), we think "her."

3) Two sentences: "All men are created equal." Versus. "All whites are created equal." Why is one offensive and the other not? What if "white" was supposed to be the generic term for all races? Would it still be offensive? In general, to single out one demographic as if it is representative of ALL demographics when it is clearly not is offensive... *if* we're aware that's what we're doing. But gender bias goes very, very deep in our minds. We're not even aware it's happening most of the time. Think of the last time you saw/were/knew a pregnant woman. Did you feel all enlightened if you were PC enough to ask her if she was thinking of going back to work post-baby? But did you even think to ask her husband the same? Why not?

I could probably go on. And those examples are clearly not representative of *all* the possible problems of a grammatical masculine generic. The point is, that at some point in my life my inner grammarian embraced the idea of gender-neutral language for gender-neutral situations.

Enter the problem of plural second person.

Singular second person is simple: you.

And, theoretically, plural second person is also: you.

But then there's the *specificity* issue again. What if I *want* it to be totally clear that I am talking about a plural "you" and not a singular "you?"

My four year old answer was that smart people said, "You guys."

But how do I reconcile the fact that I *want* the specificity of a plural "you," but I don't want to gain that specificity by limiting my audience to a male "you?" What do I say then?

Well, "y'all."

It's a perfect word. By definition it refers to a plural "you." But there aren't any gender restrictions. It's easy to say--less clunky than "you guys" certainly! Kind of rolls off the tongue, actually.

Plus, there's sort of a connotation of fondness when you use that word. And since I actually am pretty fond of y'all, that's just a bonus.


Barb @ getupandplay said...

I love it when colloquialisms are deep.

CSIowa said...

Hooray for ontological density!

When I was three or four I had a very serious argument with my friend over whether you had to believe in Peter Pan to believe in peanut butter. I was on the naive, gullible side; she was on the worldly wise, marketing-savvy side. This significant philosophical discussion took place while we were standing on the couch in my friend's living room, playing "Don't touch the floor!"

bff said...

Even better:
"y'all" directed toward a single person can take the edge off ("Y'all need to quit being passive aggressive."); and then the more adamantly plural "allay'all" can be used when speaking to the group.

Marty and Peggy said...

I beg to differ. Your first grammar rant was at two years old, not four.

sarah k. said...


Tori Fisher said...

YES! This post makes me happy. Thanks for sending me a link. :)