You, You Guys, Y’all: Second-Person Pronouns in American English

VOA Learning English • voa
March 4, 2021 5 minSource

In an episode of the humorous television show Family Guy, an unusual short discussion takes place:

Hey! You’re not in uniform. Are you guys cops?

Are you guys cops?

They know we’re not cops!

Today’s report is not about police, criminals, or funny shows. Instead, it is about pronouns. In this Everyday Grammar, we will explore second-person plural pronouns in American English and other kinds of English.

Pronouns

Personal pronouns are among the first pronouns you learn in English. Think of words such as I, you, we, and they.

In English grammar, we often describe pronouns in terms of person and number.

The person can be 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. The number can be singular or plural.

Take the pronoun I. It is the first-person singular pronoun. The first-person plural pronoun is we. The third-person pronoun also has its singular and plural forms.

But the second-person pronouns are a little unusual. You is both the singular and plural form.

You might wonder how English speakers deal with speaking to others. How do they show if they are already speaking to one person or more than one person, especially in everyday discussions?

English speakers around the world have different ways that they deal with this problem, as we will see.

American English

Speakers of American English have many ways to show the difference between second-person singular and second-person plural. Sometimes they use both of you when speaking to two people; sometimes they use all of you or some of you when speaking to groups.

Imagine a lawyer needs two people to sign a document. The lawyer might say:

I need both of you to sign this document.

If the same lawyer were speaking to a group of people, he or she might say:

I need all of you to sign this document.

Or:

Some of you need to sign this document.

In everyday speech, Americans have several other ways they show the difference between the second-person singular and the second-person plural.

Think back to the words you heard at the beginning of this report:

Hey! You’re not in uniform. Are you guys cops?

Are you guys cops?

They know we’re not cops!

Note that both speakers used the term you guys to show that they were speaking to several people.

Imagine this situation. Schoolchildren are getting out of control. One student might tell two or more other students:

You guys need to calm down!

In some parts of the United States, speakers use the term y’all as the second-person plural. A video called The Many Meanings of “Y’all” explores the many uses of the term.

The video notes that a speaker might greet two or more people by saying the following:

Hey y’all!

But please note that the video also makes fun of the difference between y’all and you guys, which we will explore in detail in a future report.

“Hey you guys, what are you all looking at?”

Another second-person plural pronoun, youse, is also used in America, but such usage is growing increasingly rare, a 2017 opinion story in the Chicago Tribune suggests.

The opinion story described the decline of youse in America and noted that you guys and y’all have risen to take the place of youse.

Different kinds of English

When you listen to English speakers from around the world, you will hear slightly different second-person plural pronoun usage.

In a paper on New Zealand English, Laurie Bauer notes that some speakers use a second-person plural form youse, as well as other forms such as youse guys and you guys. Bauer suggests that youse likely comes from Ireland, “although it is also found in parts of Scotland and the north of England.”

He adds that you guys likely comes from America.

Closing thoughts

For now, you should be very careful about using any pronouns other than you. On writing tests, for example, you would probably not want to use y’all or you guys. The next time you are watching films or listening to everyday discussions in English, pay careful attention to how speakers use the second-person plural pronouns. Over time, you will build a strong understanding of when and how to use different pronouns.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

episode – n. a television show, radio show, etc., that is one part of a series

uniform – n. a special kind of clothing that is worn by all the members of a group or organization (such as an army or team)

singular – adj. grammar : showing or indicating no more than one thing

plural – adj. grammar : relating to a form of a word that refers to more than one person or thing

greet -- v.  to meet (someone who has just arrived) with usually friendly and polite words and actions​


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