Figuring 'you guys' out

August 25 2020 | #linguistics

Contemporary “standard” English famously lacks a distinction between singular and plural in the second person, but almost as famously, “non-standard” varieties of English are forever innovating new second person plural pronouns—y’all, yinz, yous, and similar—or else simply retain singular thou. All of these moves address an ambiguity that does exist in the standard pronoun inventory, though one that frankly doesn’t cause as much confusion as we might have expected.

In a research meeting sometime in 2017, as an aside to a different topic, Dan Siddiqi once suggested that all (or nearly all) English speakers have a way to express a singular-plural distinction in the second person, at least in casual speech, and he suggested further that in for many people the plural second person pronoun is you guys. I protested at the time, claiming that even at my most colloquial I genuinely had no second person pronoun other than plain you, and though I used you guys it definitely wasn’t a pronoun.

But within a couple weeks I was forced to admit that I had been wrong, when I caught myself (as you do as a linguist) producing the possessive form your guys’s.

Let us pause to really consider this possessive form for a moment: your guys’s. Though English is not exactly overflowing with case distinctions on its pronouns, case on pronouns is nonetheless surprisingly tricky, and it gets more so in the face of almost any degree of syntactic complexity. But still: your guys’s. Not only does [jɔrgajzəz] not exactly trip merrily off the tongue, it’s also morphologically weird. It seems to involve a doubly marked possessive, with not only the possessive form your, but also possessive “‘s” being pronounced as a full [əz] (for at least some speakers, myself among them) even though it follows a word (guys) that at least looks like it ends in the regular plural suffix -s.

(The arguably plural ending on guys is relevant because in other contexts the possessive and the plural collapse together in a convenient haplology—again: for at least some speakers, including me—so that the possessor in a phrase like “the horses’ tails” is pronounced as [hɔrsəz] rather than as [hɔrsəzəz].)

What struck me as soon as I noticed myself producing this morphological car-crash of a form is that the only reason to do so would be if there were no other option, because the grammatical system I have as an English speaker generates [jɔrgajzəz] as the only possible form.

Now, the first thing many people notice about you guys is the presence of the noun guys—unless one spells it you guise, a charming orthographic flourish that I decided (with regret) not to use here since it obscures some of the points I’m interested in. I’ll return to the question of whether you guys is gender specific for the people who use it later on, but for now bear with me as I review some morphosyntactic evidence about whether it’s even a pronoun in the first place.

This possessive form is a first piece of evidence that you guys is a plural pronoun, not just a pronoun followed by the noun guys, analogous to cases like us/we Canadians or you linguists. The possessive form of you linguists can only be you linguists’—this isn’t totally natural, but it’s much better than doubly-marked *your linguists’s:

(1) You linguists’ examples are always incredibly awkward.

(2) *Your linguists’ examples are always incredibly awkward.

Another piece of evidence that you guys is a pronoun is that it can be interpreted as a bound variable—in other words, in (3) you guys can be interpreted as referring to “your team”, but it can also be interpreted as a variable that simply refers back to the subject.

(3) Only your team thinks you guys are going to win.

  1. No other team thinks you guys are going to win. (you guys = referential)
  2. No other team thinks they are going to win. (you guys = bound variable)

But on the other hand, there are at least two ways in which you guys doesn’t act entirely like other English pronouns. The first involves particle verbs like look up or read out. The characteristic of particle verbs—what distinguishes them from verbs followed by prepositions—is that an object can either follow or precede the particle:

(3) They looked up the answer. / They looked the answer up.

(4) She read out the names. / She read the names out.

Pronouns, however, can only precede the particle (unless the pronoun is heavily stressed or focused).

(5) *We looked up them. / We looked them up.

If you guys were a regular English pronoun, we would expect it to act like them in (5). Instead, though, you guys acts like the full noun phrases in (3) and (4), being able to either precede or follow a particle:

(6) We looked up you guys. / We looked you guys up.

I personally prefer the you guys-particle order, but a quick Google check suggests that indeed both orders are acceptable, with the particle-you guys order being the more common.

N “look up X” “look X up” Ratio
the number 15,800,000 81,900 192.92
you guys 1,260,000 174,000 7.24
someone 219,000 61,300 3.57
y’all 44,700 20,500 2.18
him 472,000 2,570,000 0.18
them 620,000 6,160,000 0.10

While you guys doesn’t have the distribution of a definite noun phrase like the number, it also doesn’t look like the inarguable pronouns him and them. (But interestingly, neither does y’all, most famous of the second person plurals, though it’s much closer!)

The second way that you guys doesn’t look entirely like an English pronoun is that it doesn’t like to be repeated after its first mention. This isn’t surprising when it occurs twice in one clause—if you guys is a pronoun, then examples like (7) would be ruled out by Principle B, just as the same example with you…you would be. Instead we have to say something like (8), with the second instance replaced by a reflexive.

(7) You guys saw you guys in the mirror. (Assuming that *you guys refers to the same group in both instances)

(8) You guys saw yourselves in the mirror.

Unlike other pronouns, though, you guys doesn’t get better if the second instance is in an embedded clause (9), or even in a separate sentence (10). It also gets better if it’s emphasized or contrastively focused. This is unlike other pronouns, including you, but similar to regular noun phrases (11–12).

(9) You guys said she already met you (*guys).

(10) You guys were telling a story. Did we interrupt you (*guys)?

(11) We should introduce OUR friends, and YOU GUYS should introduce YOUR GUYS’s friends.

(12) My friends said she already met {*my friends / them}.

(13) My friends were telling a story. Did we interrupt {*my friends / them}?

(A couple of y’all speakers of my acquaintance have suggested in conversation that y’all similarly resists non-emphatic repetition. I haven’t confirmed those judgements, but if they hold up there might be a more general point to make about the behaviour of second-person plural pronouns in English.)

So to sum up, you guys looks like an English pronoun (or at least not like an ordinary noun phrase) in its irregular possessive morphology and in allowing bound variable interpretations, but unlike a pronoun in its position with verb particles and in resisting repetition.

Because this is a blog post and not an academic article, I don’t have to give you a worked-out analysis that resolves this conflict. What I’ll say is that it seems plausible that you guys is a form of emphatic strong pronoun, in some sense of “emphatic” and “strong” that I would be very interested to see someone else define.

ETA 08.26: Amy Rose Deal pointed out on Facebook that you guys also doesn’t allow appositives like both or two: compare I’ll see you two later with *I’ll see you guys both later, though y’all does for at least some speakers (As in: I’ll see y’all two later), and she suggested this might show that guys in you guys is still an appositive modifier of some kind, whereas all in y’all has grammaticalized further.

Does it matter if you guys is a pronoun?

In one way, the question of whether you guys is a pronoun or not doesn’t matter except as an interesting intellectual exercise. But in another way, this question provides context for another one, about which people get quite exercised: whether you guys perpetuates the idea that masculine is the default, and so is something we should avoid using.

I can report that people get quite annoyed, sometimes even angry, about you guys. If that describes you, and you are reading this blog post, then first of all: thank you for reading this far! Even though I think the evidence shows that you guys is genuinely a gender-neutral second person pronoun for some English speakers, I don’t think that by itself is an argument that nobody should get angry about it.

The argument that you guys is gendered is very straightforward: the noun guys is right there, and the noun guys is gender specific, therefore you guys is too.

Now, if you guys is properly treated as a pronoun, it’s less obvious that [gajz] is necessarily the noun. All the same, I think most you guys users would probably agree that it contains “guys” (compare “should of” and uncertainty about how to spell “use(d) to”, which suggest that people don’t see these as containing “have” or a past tense, respectively)—the above-noted variant spelling “you guise” aside.

But while the properties of a phrase are usually determined by the properties of the words inside that phrase, that isn’t always the case. It can be false that I went anywhere but true that I went to sleep; no liquid receptacles need be overturned if I kick the bucket.

In thinking about the properties of guys, let’s start with the definite noun phrase the guys. For me, this is very strongly gendered: it can only refer to a group of male teenagers or adults. But interestingly, as soon as we change the determiner to these guys or those guys, suddenly guys can refer to a contextually relevant group of inanimate objects, and I think I would accept it referring to a mixed-gender group of humans.

Next up, the vocative Guys!, as in “Guys! Over here!” I find this slightly less gender-specific than the guys, but still defaulting to male reference and therefore excluding me, a non-masculine human. But I also I know that a lot of people use this in a non-gender-specific way, because I have occasionally twitched when someone used it to hail me.

Finally, you guys itself. I know for a fact that I frequently use this to refer to all-female or mostly-female groups of people, because I catch myself using it to refer to my undergraduate classes (and at my institution, like at many others, courses in linguistics are regularly upwards of 90% women). In contrast to vocative Guys! I have never twitched when someone uses you guys to address a group I’m in—in fact, I almost never notice it whether in my own speech or in other people’s.

The use of you guys to refer to groups that contain no individuals who could be identified as the guy demonstrates very clearly that for speakers like me—though not speakers who don’t use you guys this way—you guys does not inherit the masculine denotation of the noun guy as a matter of grammar. It is a trickier question whether it might nonetheless bias a masculine interpretation, or contribute to a view of men as “default” persons, but for that I think we would need as-yet-nonexistent psycholinguistic results.

Nonetheless, I know that you guys does strike many non-masculine English speakers as gender specific, because several women and nonbinary people of my acquaintance do twitch if it’s applied to groups they’re in. So what to do?

For myself, the decision about whether to change a particular aspect of my speech boils down to two considerations:

  1. How easy is it to change?

  2. Are the reasons given for the change compelling? (And do they actually apply in this case?)

Some changes are hard, but necessary, because they require rewiring one’s grammatical system. Using they or neopronouns as nonbinary pronouns of reference fall under this heading. Other changes are both (comparatively) easy and have compelling reasons, like not using “mankind” to mean “humanity”, or avoiding crazy as an intensifier (i.e. meaning very), though I can personally attest that the latter is surprisingly difficult, perhaps because intensifiers are arguably functional elements and thus more deeply embedded in grammar.

Other changes would be easy, but the reasons given are not compelling, or don’t apply, or both. Under this heading I would file such classics as “TERF is a slur”, and the brand of “queer is a slur” that I associate with teenagers on Tumblr who try to insist on the “q-slur” tag. (For arguments that TERF is not a slur, see articles by Rachel McKinnon and by Christopher Davis and Elin McCready.)

In other cases I disagree with the grammatical arguments given for avoiding a particular word, but people are nonetheless hurt by its use, and so the relatively easy change is worth making anyway. For example, people object to transgendered as an alternative to transgender on the grounds that the ending -ed implies that this is something that was done to people rather than something that they are. This is a grammatical misanalysis: the final -ed in (trans)gendered isn’t the passive participle suffix of painted wall but instead the inalienable possessive suffix of brown-eyed girl. (I saw this most clearly laid out in an unpublished article by Brooke Larson, but it’s been said other places as well.) Nonetheless, this detail of grammatical accuracy is less important than the fact that using transgendered causes harm to people, so I accordingly use transgender instead.

So where does you guys fall in this interaction? Though I’m someone who gets deeply annoyed whenever someone uses man to mean humanity, and someone who has (mostly) trained myself to stop using crazy as an intensifier, and though I do try to avoid using you guys when speaking publicly to an audience whose linguistic background I don’t know, on balance I have not been convinced that the harm of you guys is enough to motivate the effort that would be needed to eliminate it from my speech entirely—and since I am, on this occasion, in the group allegedly being excluded, my feelings about whether that exclusion is real are relevant in a way they aren’t for me as a cis person thinking about transgendered. I could probably manage it if I tried! I believe that conscious grammatical change is possible! But training myself to use an alternative like yous and y’all feels dangerously appropriative, coming as I do from a position of comparative linguistic privilege, and so until someone shows me compelling evidence that you guys skews a masculine interpretation even for those speakers who use it gender-nonspecifically, I don’t think there’s a reason to eradicate it from my grammar.

What would such evidence look like? I have a hard time thinking of how one could set up experimental paradigms where participants would convincingly use or evaluate the use of you guys to address different audiences—even aside from the fact that one would have to control in the first place for participants who in fact have the right kind of you guys. But I am not an experimental linguist! I eagerly await the results of someone else figuring out how to do that.

While there doesn’t appear to be any psycholinguistic work on you guys, there’s been some sociolinguistic descriptions: articles by Natalie Maynow in 2000 and Theresa Heyd in 2010, and a 2014 dissertation by Ben Sienicki. And probably others! This is just what I found with some minimal searching.

As I said above, I’m open to arguments that we should try to eliminate you guys, but have for now landed at the view that the effort-to-motivation ratio doesn’t merit full replacement. I’m interested in knowing where other people have landed on this—especially in relation to whether you are yourself a fully grammaticalized you guys speaker—and indeed whether anyone has more evidence for or against categorizing you guys as a pronoun in the first place.

As a final note, it was only through the greatest effort that this blog post didn’t digress for several hundred words on the troubling fact that there is, to my knowledge, no reasonable formal feature system for English that can naturally accommodate the impersonal use of you, which is not (to my knowledge) shared by any of the innovated plural pronouns. If you think there actually is, please set my mind at ease by letting me know about it.

Some additional notes

Amy Rose Deal has a short article in Snippets that uses the existence of your guys’s as an argument that English pronouns have a genuine genitive case form.

I wrote the first draft of this post in September 2018, as a potential contribution to a blog that never got off the ground. In 2019 I gave part of it as a talk to an undergraduate audience, and drafted a version of it for submission to Snippets. After ages procrastinating on a few requested revisions, I ultimately decided that maybe what I wanted to say about you guys would work best as a blog post, so here we are. If you’re interested in citing this post, here are instructions on citing a blog post in APA. It would appear as:

  • Bjorkman, Bronwyn. (2020, August 25). Figuring ‘you guys’ out [Blog post]. Retrieved from