Southern Grammar: It's Got Rules, Y'all!

No snarky comments about the title, please!  If you aren’t a lover of language and words like I am, you might not realize that all dialects have their own internal grammar and operate according to rules.  And I’m going to write from time to time about the rules of the dialect I know best: Southern American English, or SAE.
Today let’s talk about y’all.
Y’all (short for you all) is a beloved Southernism–a “high prestige” word that even Yankee immigrants are quick to adopt, unlike other usages which I will discuss another time.  There’s a good reason for this–it’s not just useful, it’s necessary.
Unlike many other languages, English lacks a second person plural (although earlier forms of the language had one).  “You” serves for one person or many.  Such simplification of forms is a regular occurrence in languages over time, but if you ask me this was a stupid one:  we obviously need a plural for you, and all dialects of English do their best to supply one.
If you aren’t a Southerner, you may laugh at “y’all,” but you probably say “you guys” yourself.  There are other regional variations–you’uns, youse, you people.  What it comes down to is we NEED a plural form of you and y’all fills the bill nicely.
Now here is the rule that I want all non-speakers of SAE to hear and internalize:  y’all is ONLY and ALWAYS plural.  No Southerner EVER uses it to mean one person, as I have seen on more than one occasion in books written by Yankees attempting to infuse their work with local color.  “Oh, y’all sure do know the way to a lady’s heart,” spoken by an eyelash-batting Southern belle to an admirer in a romance novel is just WRONG.  I have had non-speakers attempt to convince me that I am mistaken, that they are SURE they have heard y’all used in this way.  NO.
Now, y’all is occasionally used in a collective sense, where it is spoken to one person, but it is still a plural because that person is a representative of a group.  For example, I might say to a store clerk:  “Do y’all have any more Ugly Dolls in the back?”  (I DID say that, yesterday. )  Or I might say to a friend, “Where are y’all going on vacation?” (Y’all means her whole family.)
Sometimes even y’all isn’t plural enough.  So I might ask a group of friends, “Are all y’all coming with me?” It may sound crazy but if you think about the grammar it’s really no different than saying. “Are all of you coming?” or “Are all you guys coming?”
Finally, let’s discuss the possessive form.  In books I always see “y’all’s” and I have heard people say that now and again.  But far more prevalent here in East Tennessee is the form “your-all’s,” which caused my college roommate to fall off her bed laughing the first time she heard me say it.

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17 Responses

  1. Ashley says:

    I agree with all of these “y’all” rules wholeheartedly! However, I have a friend from Southern Alabama who consistently uses “y’all” with one person. At a store, when the cashier says to have a nice day, she’ll reply, “Y’all too.” I don’t understand how that came to be, since I have always understood it to be plural.
    Also, sadly, I used “your-all’s” in my French 1 class just this morning while I was explaining possessive adjectives in French. English just needs one more pronoun! (However, in French, it’s the opposite problem, vous can be y’all or you formal, which has its own set of confusions…)

    • lesliesholly says:

      I was thinking a lot of French when I wrote this since that is the foreign language I know best! I wonder if your friend isn’t still using y’all in a sort of collective way, seeing the clerk as a representative of the store employees as a whole? That’s the only way that makes sense to me!

  2. Larissa T. says:

    Y’all is an essential word. period. (:

  3. cactuswine says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. SAE has rules! I personally have a passionate dislike for how the northerners with whom I currently reside regard our beautiful dialect. We have a complex historical basis for our dialect and it is as valid as the dropped Boston r.

  4. Helga says:

    Y’all don’t even want to know about German 🙂

    • lesliesholly says:

      LOL. Y’all have declensions and gender and frightening stuff like that, right? (There is an appropriate corporate use of y’all, wherein I am addressing Helga as a representative of all German speakers!!)

      • Helga says:

        All of that. And you can “address” me anyway you like! (BTW, address is spelled “Adresse” in German and the word can only be used as a physical address. There is no verb form for “Adresse.

  5. Natasha says:

    Y’all. Should be a part of standard English. Hadn’t heard the variation of your-all’s… but I left middle Tennessee in the mid-1980s, so it might have just been something I didn’t hear as a kid, or something that became more popular after I left.
    I still use y’all because it’s useful and sounds better than you guys, or even worse, youse guys. English is a big language. Y’all is a part of it.

  6. Maggie says:

    This cracked me up, and I love it!

  7. David Wayne says:

    There’s way too many Yankees out east as In North Carolina Kentucky florida they about to get the boot And how is a state with a beach so country ??? Arkansas is so country redneck hillbilly state .. A real southern state of course should be natural .. y’all hang in there .

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