My, How You’ve Changed: Second-Person Pronouns in Modern English

English is unusual among languages, especially Indo-European ones, in its paucity of second-person pronouns: it has only “you,” which does double duty as plural and singular. Or does it?

I.    Historical background
From Proto-Indo-European through Middle English, the English language had a full complement of pronouns like its relatives in the rest of the Indo-European language family. In the Early Modern English of Shakespeare’s time, the second-person singular informal was still “thou”/”thee” and the plural or singular formal was “ye”/“you.” However, this distinction was already beginning to drop away, as is evidenced by the inconsistent usage of “thou” and “you” in Shakespeare’s plays. By the end of the seventeenth century, “thou” was preserved only in small dialects in the British Isles and Appalachia.

At some point after the expansion of “you” to include both plural and singular meanings, another change took place. “You” began to be associated more with its singular meaning, while its original plural sense was often taken up by other, newer pronouns.  In modern American spoken English, unmarked “you” is taken as a singular. If you pay attention, you can see this change in casual conversations. If I’m talking to a group of people, I’d say “you” to address one of them and “you guys” to address more than one. Failure to follow this convention can result in confusion. I’ve heard anecdotes of exchanges like the following, where it had already been established that a girl was planning to go out that night with her friend and the friend’s boyfriend:

Girl A: Okay, so I’ll meet you at 7pm tonight?

Girl B: Sure, but you know my boyfriend’s coming too.

This confusion resulted from Girl A’s use of “you” in place of the expected “you guys” (or other variant). In fact, while typing it just now I accidentally wrote in “you guys” because it sounded more natural.

There is no universal replacement for “you” as a second-person plural pronoun. Instead, the function of second-person plural pronoun is filled either by the use of you in connection with a plural marker (“all of you,” “both of you,” “many of you”) or by what I will call a “new pronoun,” most of which are regional to some extent. This multiplication of pronouns has thus far gone largely unremarked in the academic world. As recently as 1992, the first edition of A Survey of Modern English stated that “to all intents and purposes English has only one second person pronoun, you” (Gramley & Pätzold 1992: 288), although mention was made of other “colloquial” forms. English as a Second or Other Language and grammar books never fail to list “you” as both singular and plural; anything else is outside the standard.

Indeed, in many contexts “you” does retain its old plural sense. In this respect the distance between written and spoken English can be striking. The Brigham Young University Corpus of American English consists of 360 million words collected from various sources and divided equally into five sections by genre: spoken, fiction, magazine, newspaper, and academic. Out of 72 million words in the spoken English genre, the pronoun “you guys” appears 4,659 times. By contrast, out of 72 million words in the academic English genre, the pronoun “you guys” appears 52 times—1.1% as often. Of course, this is partly because the second-person pronoun, whether singular or plural, appears less often in academic writing than in other genres. However, “you” appears 1,304,244 times in the 72 million words of spoken English, and 64,805 times in the 72 million words of academic English—5% as often. Although the second-person is one twentieth as common in academic as in spoken English, the pronoun “you guys” is closer to one hundredth as common, showing that, as is often the case, the spoken language has pulled ahead of the written language.

II.    “New pronouns”

Of course, “you guys” is not the only “new pronoun” to replace plural “you.” Along with “y’all,” it is probably one of the most recognized, but there are a host of other regional replacements. Several of these replacements are derived from “you” in similar ways but found in distinct geographical areas, suggesting they evolved separately. The Harvard Survey of North American Dialects, compiled in the late ’90s and early ’00s,  sheds light on this regional variation in its question “What word(s) do you use to address a group of two or more people?” Katie Wales’s paper “Second Person Pronouns in Contemporary English: The End of a Story or Just the Beginning?” (PDF) does a similar service for dialects in the British Isles. Based on these two sources, we can see that some of the strategies for arriving at a “new pronoun” from “you” are as follows:

1.    “you” + “ones”: Found most prominently in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania as “yinz” (also spelled “yins”). Also found as “you’uns” in the same area and the lower Midwest, stretching down into North Texas. “Yins” is also found in Glasgow, and “yousuns” (see below) in Ireland.

2.    “you” + “all”: Includes “y’all,” a feature found to some degree on both coasts but concentrated especially in the South. It is also a feature of AAVE (African American Vernacular English), which is distributed throughout the country but concentrated in urban areas. “Y’all”’s lesser-known cousin “you all” is found much less often in the South and finds its greatest concentrations on the East Coast between Boston and Washington and in the Great Lakes states. My father, who was born and raised in Washington, DC, claims “you all” is a natural part of his dialect. There is also an appreciable “you all” area in the urban areas of the West Coast.

3.    “you” + plural –s
This formula treats “you” as a noun and pluralizes it like a normal English word, resulting in the spelling variants “yous,” “youse,” and others. In America this form is concentrated in New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Outside America it is found in Australia, New Zealand, Dublin, Northern Ireland, and parts of England and Scotland. Variants such as “yiz” and “ye’s” are also found in Ireland, Newfoundland, and England.

4.    “you guys”
Certainly the most universal “you” replacement in America, with wide currency everywhere outside the South (and some presence there). 42.53% of the respondents to the Harvard survey chose this pronoun, and on at least one occasion it was used by President Bush in scripted remarks. Although relatively unmarked in this country, outside America it is much rarer and more informal: the British National Spoken Corpus lists only 17 occurrences of “you guys” in 11 million words.

5.    “you lot”
Rare in the U.S., although found somewhat on the West Coast and in Chicago and Pittsburgh. This form is much more common in the United Kingdom, where it has a “slightly disparaging or retorting” connotation (Wales 13).

The second-highest scoring option in the Harvard survey after “you guys” was “you” itself, with almost a quarter of all responses. However, these figures are self-reported, not observed; metapragmatic awareness of the dual single/plural role of “you” may have affected some people’s answers, since respondents are taught that “you” is the standard and commonly used plural form. In reality, the Harvard survey better reflects people’s perception of their own language use than their actual language use. Furthermore, each respondent could choose only one answer; in reality it is highly likely that speakers use different options depending on the context.

III. “You guys” as a single unit

It may seem odd to treat multi-word units like “you guys” and “you all” as single pronoun units. I see a parallel here with Tok Pisin, the official (and most widely-spoken) language of Papua New Guinea. Tok Pisin, whose name comes from the English words “talk” and “pidgin,” is a creole language based primarily on English. The Tok Pisin plural second-person pronoun is “yupela,” and a number of other plural pronouns also end in “-pela.” This ending comes from the English word “fellow”; you can see that something similar to what’s now happening in English happened in Tok Pisin, where “you” and “fellow(s)” merged to become a single pronoun.

The fact is that we treat “you guys” as if it were one word, both phonetically and grammatically, as opposed to a pronoun followed by an appositive, like “you Americans.” This is shown in our awkward attempts to form the possessive of “you guys,” usually as “your guys'” or “your guys’s.” Compare the following examples:

(1)  Your guys’ car is a lot faster than ours.

(2) Your Americans’ car is a lot faster than ours.

(3) Your folks’ car is a lot faster than ours.

(2) and (3) are possible sentences in English, but they would refer to “the car belonging to your Americans” and “the car belonging to your folks,” respectively. (1), meanwhile, can only refer to “the car belonging to you guys,” not “the car belonging to your guys.” There is no way in English to make a pronoun followed by an appositive possessive. If we want to say “the car belonging to you Americans,” we have to say it like that or omit “Americans.” The fact that “your guys'” can be a possessive while “your folks'” or “your Americans'” cannot shows that we treat “you guys” as a single-unit pronoun.

Of course, “your guys'” sounds a bit awkward to our ears, and although we use it in casual conversation we would never write it or use it in formal contexts. All this shows is that the innovation of “you guys”—or rather, its evolution from pronoun + appositive to simple pronoun—is recent enough that it has not been fully accepted into Standard English yet. In time, we can expect it to become unmarked, and most likely(1) either “your guys'” will stop sounding awkward or we will find a new possessive that sounds better.

Questions for commenters: Can you recall any conversations or exchanges that demonstrate that “you” alone is no longer the second-person plural pronoun in English? Why do you think “you” has lost or is losing its plural meaning rather than its singular meaning, if it were going to lose one?

(1) “Most likely” but not “definitely” because it is possible to have what is called a “defective” pronoun (or other part of speech), one that does not exist in all the forms you would expect. In formal or written Standard English, if “you guys” were to be fully accepted but not “your guys’,” “you guys” would be a defective pronoun because it would lack a possessive.


7 Responses to “My, How You’ve Changed: Second-Person Pronouns in Modern English”

  1. So it seems fairly clear that there is a certain “demand” for a second person plural in English, and there seem to be some real advantages and disadvantages to some of the current second person plurals used in the US today. For example, the possessive “y’all’s”, despite having two apostrophes in it, seems a lot cleaner than “your guys’. ” Are there any historical examples when someone notices a demand like this, decides which of the available options is best, makes a conscious effort to change the spoken language to the new standard, and does so successfully? In other words, has anyone ever successfully made “fetch” happen?

  2. I wonder whether “you all,” which seems natural in my own, informal speech, is actually an example where English has a singular, dual, and plural. In other words, I think I would be unlikely to use “you all” in speaking to a couple (I would just use “you” instead) or even to two unrelated people. But I think I would be likely to use it when speaking to three or more. The “all” seems to have at least some force pushing it towards meaning more than two.
    A few other comments:
    1. “Your guys” sounds totally weird to me, and I don’t think I would understand what it meant if someone used it. But could it not be that in English, the second person plural nominative becomes “you guys,” while the second person plural possessive remains simply “your”?
    2. I think there may be some resistance to “you guys” from people who think it is not gender neutral. This could hinder its wider adoption.
    3. I think that “you” still has a great deal of use as a plural. It would be interesting to try to determine if its use varies by age of speaker. If it turned out that older people used the plural “you” more often than younger people, the conclusion could be that the other variants are taking over (or, of course, that the other variants are standard only for some sub-groups of the population, e.g., young people).
    4. In answer to mcs, my favorite example of a word that was deliberately made up and is now very commonly used is “Ms.”

  3. mcs,
    I don’t know too much about this, but I suspect that conscious coinage happens all the time. For example, the word “homosexual” was coined by an Austro-Hungarian human rights activist, Karl-Maria Kertbeny; his Wikipedia page traces the spread of the term from Kertbeny’s writing to a book by Gustav Jäger and finally to Richard von Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which popularized it.

    That may be true for your dialect; I would definitely use “you guys” when referring to even two people. I suspect that “your guys'” seems odder to you when written than spoken. Keep an ear out and see if you hear it used. You may be surprised.

  4. Catherine Johnson Says:

    I have recently noticed that I almost always say “you both” when referring to two people. I think this is very common in Britain. More and more we also say “you guys”, but this still sounds quite American to me. We also use “you all” as well. It is strange thinking about how I have been using it like that for years without really realising we have a plural you!

  5. Jacob Bumgardner Says:

    In my opinion, having been provoked into the mystery of the second person through studying the Bible; King James Version, I suppose the language changed to compromise doctrine. I’m thinking of the dark ages in particular, right before this version was actually published. People as a whole could not read nor write, living mostly through oral communication. With the publication of this Bible, (and of course with the invention of the printing press), people learned to read for themselves. To make a long story short, I think some how language was changed to confuse the reading of the Bible. Second person was then, more definite than the second person is now; hence the provoking into this study. -I thank thee for thy time thou hast spent to read this; which was thine to do what thou wouldst!!!!

  6. Nathan Eddy Says:

    You left out youns, yins(appalachia), yinner (bahamas), wunner (barbados) and oona(Jamaica and the Sea Islands.)

  7. Here’s a curiosity: all the Hebrew textbooks I’ve seen so far, when they give instructions in Hebrew (like “Complete these sentences” or “What do you think Anna was missing?”), use the /plural/ second person, not singular. This suggests that maybe the “you” you see in English instructions was plural, not singular, all along. Although maybe they do it just to avoid sexism, much like how English writers use “they” in the singular.

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