In which I talk to y’all–all y’all

Every once in awhile, this needs to be repeated because I KEEP SEEING IT HAPPEN. Please, for the love of God, don’t let it happen to you. Use y’all properly. This piece will explain how.

I am an unrepentant Southerner. There are some things I deplore about our Southern culture, some for which I would fight tooth and nail. “Y’all” is among the latter. English is a peculiar language, a strange brew of disparate ingredients that don’t always meld perfectly. Sometimes, in our unholy alliance of Latin, Greek, old French, German, etc. we commit errors of omission. (I am particularly wounded by the brutally specific Germanic nouns that we seem to be lacking. Honestly, we have no words to even TOUCH “schadenfreude”.) Perhaps the most glaring lack in our language is a second person plural pronoun. Most other languages have TWO, a formal and an informal. And we, somehow, think we can get by with none. Silly us.

So we bodge together regional solutions, most of which are inelegant or unspecific. Except for “y’all”. It is clear, concise, and does no more or no less than it ought. And let the record show that it IS “y’all”. It is a contraction for “you all”, and therefore the apostrophe must be placed where the “o” and the “u” are lacking. Any attempt to place it between the “a” and the first “l” ought to be received with derision and a refusal to share the good chicken salad.

And the rules of using “y’all”, with apologies to Elle Woods, are simple and finite. The word is used when addressing more than one person. YOU ALL. You, collectively. You, each and every one, as a group and a whole. I thought this was self-explanatory, but twice recently I have hurled books across the room because the benighted authors–and their publishers–committed a colloquial atrocity and permitted improper usage. In one case a character looked at a single person and said, “I’m so glad to see y’all.” No, you aren’t. You are glad to see YOU. If there are two or more or you are referring to a collective to which your conversational partner belongs, THEN you use “y’all”. Otherwise, “you” is sufficient.

The second maddening example was a supposedly Southern character who looked at a group of people and said, “Are y’alls alright?” That particular book left a dent in my plaster because it got hurled. I mean, I hummed it. Even now, thinking of that line makes me go all Madeline Kahn–“Flames, flames, on the sides of my face…”–because it is so absurd. Y’alls. Honestly. There IS NO SUCH WORD. If you don’t get Southern speech, fine. No problem. Either learn it or write around it, don’t just make stuff up and think we won’t notice or care. We do care. Deeply. And we will think less of you for not caring.

We also might be tempted to do evil. Now, I’m not particularly proud of this, but it illustrates how strongly Southerners feel upon the subject of regional speech. Some years ago, I attended a Sisters in Crime meeting in a city that shall not be named. (It rhymes with Ban Dantonio.) We were all atwitter because an author we had heard of was coming to talk about her series. She was from a state that really won’t be named, but I will tell you it was north of the Mason-Dixon. Anyway, during the course of her chat, she proceeded to tell us about the new book she was writing that was set in the South around the time of the Civil War. Her characters were Southern, but they were drawn with neither affection nor understanding, and during that hour, she condescended more to us than I would have thought humanly possible. She indicated that we were all poorly educated inbred hillbillies with neither sophistication nor culture. And she even managed to suggest that we were entirely too backward to know what we didn’t know.

And then she read us a passage from her as-yet-unpublished book. The first time she misused the word “y’all” a ripple ran through the crowd, silent but palpable. She second time, I felt the woman next to me suppress a sigh of satisfaction. The author proceeded to use it incorrectly more than a dozen times in the ten pages she read. When she was finished, we applauded and thanked her politely. And then we left. Not a single woman in that audience corrected her. I’m sure y’all will understand why.

(As a side note, I have had friends from other parts of the country who used “you-ins”, “youse”, or “youse guys” as their second person plural pronoun. Rock on, my non-Southern friends. I may not share your pronoun, but I will defend to the death your right to use it.)