'You-guys': It riles Miss Manners and other purists, but for most it adds color to language landscape

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article
Print Search archive
Most e-mailed articles Most e-mailed articles
You guys may not like it, but we're at a cultural watershed.

If you cringed at "you guys," brace yourselves.

What you're hearing is the vibrant evolution of the American language. Yes, "you guys" is on its way to being proper speech.

Anyone who eats out understands the futility of standing in its way. Restaurant patrons ages 8 to 80 are addressed as "you guys" — as in, "What will you guys have?" In fact, linguist Bert Vaux's University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students report being specifically told at their waitressing jobs not to use "you guys."

Consider this the awkward, intermediate stage. "You guys" has insinuated itself into everyday speech, but there is resistance. It's the normal course of events when a new linguistic feature makes the transition into standard English.

"The you-guysing of America," one scholarly paper calls it.

Here, linguists say, is what's happening:

In English, "you" is used to address an individual or a crowd. There is no distinct plural form.

The trouble is, we want one. We have "an unconscious need," explains George Goebel, assistant editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English.

"You guys" is a product of this — as are "you all," "youse" (Irish-English), "you lot," "you 'uns" (Scots-Irish), "yins" (chiefly western Pennsylvania) and "y'all." But it is "you guys" that has taken hold.

A 2002-2003 Harvard Survey of North American Dialects, which Vaux authored while teaching at that university, found "you guys" the default expression of choice in all U.S. regions but one. More on that later.

The infiltration is a 20th-century development, one independent, as Vaux put it, "of the conscious will of society." That is, we simply said what sounded right. "It's how language changes," Vaux said.

Linguistic change typically takes one of two paths. It remains marginal, never becoming more than slang, or it enters standard English. If the latter, there is almost always pushback from what linguists call "established, older speakers."

Meanwhile, a parallel change may have provided "you guys" with a decisive advantage.

"Nowadays, very few speakers would consider 'you guys' male only," said Sean McLennan, a doctoral student in linguistics at Indiana University. He has written an academic paper on the gender uses of "guy," "guys" and "you guys" and finds evidence that even "guy" is edging toward gender neutrality.

The neutrality of "you guys" was noted as early as 1942. Teenage girls use it with one another (hey, you guys!), and television reporters use it to sign off to anchors male and female (back to you guys in the studio).

The word "guy" is thought to come from Guy Fawkes, a conspirator in a failed 1605 plot to blow up the British Parliament. Effigies called "guys" are still burned on the November anniversary. Gradually, the word came to mean any male.

Perhaps the earliest record of "you guys" is from 1896. Chicago writer George Ade — noted for his creative use of slang, Goebel said — used it in his character sketch "Artie." He wrote, "You guys must think I'm a quitter."

So how did we get here from there?

Television for one. "You guys" was a staple of children's programming in the 1950s, the uniquely named jjoan ttaber altieri observed in "The Vocabula Review." Those baby-boomer viewers, watching from coast to coast, are in their 40s and 50s now. "You guys" is part of the soundtrack of their lives.

Repetition is another factor. It has bestowed a kind of "semantic halo" over the phrase, as McLennan describes it. Not using it actually seems strange to many speakers. McLennan includes himself.

But there's a vocal backlash.

Older speakers can be left "with the curious sensation of having been insulted," altieri observed. So can those who cling to traditional propriety. Etiquette columnist Judith Martin, writing as "Miss Manners," bemoaned that, "The language of respect is fading out of use everywhere. ... You guys have a problem with this?" she asked, making it clear that she does.

The test of whether "you guys" has passed into standard English is simple: Is it used in formal situations?

It's one thing for the Yankees' Derek Jeter to complain to the press, "You guys are going to write what you want to write regardless of what we say." Or for the "Today" show's Katie Couric to observe, asking actor Ben Affleck about Jennifer Lopez, "I always felt like you guys were kind of courting the media."

But in national and international politics?

As it happens, "you guys" is no stranger to the White House. At a 2002 East Room reception, President Bush welcomed British World War II veterans, saying, "I'm honored you guys are here."

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair refers to journalists as "you guys." But it's not commonly used in the United Kingdom, said John Lister, spokesman for the Plain English Campaign. It can easily come off as affected and, well, American.

For you who despair, there is yet hope.

It can be found in a contraction for "you all," one that overtakes "you guys" in the South and is heard among many black speakers. Vaux gives it a fighting chance, given the popularity of hip-hop music and the influence of black speech on American English.

Y'all might still prevail.