Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Gone Native: Ya'll is Actually a Useful Word

There is no second-person plural pronoun (or "corporate you") in Standard (or colloquial) American English. We use the or second-person singular "you" in both singular and plural contexts. To make matters even worse, we use "you" for subjects and objects; somewhere along the line English speakers decided we would be better off without the Dative Case as well. Thanks for that. But on to the example:

Singular: "I'm so glad you called!"

Plural: "I'm calling to invite you to my party!" (who's invited?)

We use context and constructs to work around this ambiguity, but these solutions are incomplete. This is actually a bigger problem than one might think. It has been demonstrated that ambiguous pronouns, in addition to tending towards confusion, take longer for listeners to process. In situations that are time-critical (elevator pitch, job interview, emergencies) or low-context (e-mail, phone, non-native speakers) the problem compounds and split second of ambiguity can cost you your desired message.

Enter Ya'll.

Obviously, "ya'll" is a contraction of "you all" which is one of the constructs American English speakers have adapted to compensate for the glaring lack of a second-person plural pronoun. That fact alone demonstrates the need for such a pronoun - one has been created in common usage. It does retain a certain stigma due to the popularization of it's southern origin, and "hill billy" associations, but they did get something right:

Singular: "I'm so glad you called!"

Plural: "I'm calling to invite ya'll to my party!" (who's invited?)

That isn't to say it is always appropriate. Humans are very good at adapting communication styles based on context; I don't talk to friends the same way I talk to my 1-Year-Old. Given that, like many words, "ya'll" is not accepted as "proper English" in every context, I do not use it everywhere.

Language, though, is a tool. You've got to choose the right tool for the job. Or as the saying goes: when faced with an collective, plural or indeterminate second-person sentence subject or object, don't choose the objective personal pronoun.


Josh (the oak) said...

I left a contradiction in this article, just for anyone interested in language.

onefinemess said...

Welcome to the ya'll club. I made a similar decision in college. I don't use it often, but it is occasionally quite handy.

English is a funny language, we are missing lots of pieces of things that are used by other languages to make things clear (number/gender/case markers on 2nd person pronouns, a dative affix as you mention - but we do still mark that with a word - to/from, etc., verb agreement, case marking on non-pronouns, etc.). This is possibly one of the reasons foreign speakers say English is so hard to learn.

But, of course, we get by (thanks Matt Sharp!). People are smart and pretty good with context clues.

And it's too early in the morning to turn the volume on my linguistics brain up any higher, so I'll just let your contradiction sit for someone else to find.

Josh (the oak) said...

All true.

I think the poor/haphazard constructs (or assimilations) in English also make it harder for native speakers to learn other languages. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the fact that we don't teach structural grammar in school anymore.

No one knows what the Dative Case is, so when we try to learn German (for example) and suddenly have to determine subject/object/indirect object relationships on the fly and choose the correct article, and throw noun genders in as well, we're screwed.

But languages like German are more flexible in their word order, for example, since you can line your phrases up however you might want and retain relationships, whereas in English if you rearrange your phrases, it's a guessing game.

onefinemess said...

I'm trying to remember if there's a true "free word order" language out there since, as you point out, you can easily express all these things with markings. Google tells me there are, but I don't have the time to dig through them now.

.....parts of brain I haven't used in years are chunking...remembering old assignments and papers.

I miss grad school, so much "better" than undergrad. Hopefully I can go back and get/finish my PhD someday.

jenny moon said...

the grammar geek in me loves this post...

the genetic hillbilly in me would defend the use of ya'll to the death... (i instinctively used ya'll as a native born califonian child who was often mistaken for a Brit in my youth due to my other wise perfectly enunciated english-it drove my mom crazy...it's my dad's side of the family that is from arkansas)

Justin Cooley said...


The next time you have a couple of hours to spare you should really read David Foster Wallace's article about "The Usage Wars". I can't recommend this highly enough:


Josh (the oak) said...

I thought you were exaggerating the time investment, but scrolling through that article...damn.