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Opinion

Column:: A Word, Please: Y’all should be careful with when it comes to that Southern phrase

Joanna Gaines, Chip Gaines
Joanna and Chip Gaines present the home improvement show “Fixer Upper” on HGTV. A reader is fascinated by Chip’s use of “y’all.”
(Brian Ach/Invision/AP)

I was born in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, but didn’t stick around long enough to become cool.

I hadn’t had my first birthday, much less my first beret, when I landed in Central Florida (think: less Andy Warhol, more Jimmy Buffet).

By the time my sister and I had reached our teenage years, it was clear from our speech that my sister had embraced the Southern side of our home more than I had. She talked with a subtle drawl, while I occasionally got comments about having a slight New York accent.

And she was far more likely to use “y’all” — a term I hadn’t picked up.

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Decades later, reader Mike in Newport Beach asks about “y’all” and, in the process, made me realize something: It’s a little strange that I’ve never talked about it in this column — almost like I’ve subconsciously rejected it.

It’s time to correct that because “y’all” is an interesting subject.

Mike writes: “Recently, while my wife was watching Chip and Johanna’s show, ‘Fixer Upper,’ on HGTV, I noticed on the closed captions a translation of Chip’s speech. He’s from Waco, Texas, and commonly uses the contraction ‘y’all.’ My Southern friends say that the word ‘y’all’ is totally acceptable if you live south of Virginia and east of El Paso, Texas. I was fascinated when Chip used the contraction ‘y’all’s’ and it appeared on the closed caption, with two apostrophes right in print. Questions: 1. Is y’all acceptable English? 2. Is y’all’s a word?”

The first question is easy. It’s answered with a question: Acceptable to whom? There exists no governing body to rule on these matters. Instead, acceptability is decided by you and me, and it varies from situation to situation.

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I wouldn’t recommend you use “y’all” in a doctoral dissertation: “Y’all should know the following about quantum physics.” But for less-formal situations, it’s pretty much up to you, and you can base your decisions on which part of the country you happen to be from or in.

For my money, dictionaries are the best authorities on these types of questions. If two or more major dictionaries agree a term is worth including, I consider it thus legitimized. “Y’all” is in a lot of dictionaries, including Webster’s New World: “Y’all: Chiefly Southern. A variant of you-all.” That’s good enough for me.

As for whether “y’all’s” is a word, that’s more complicated. Most nouns and pronouns can be made possessive by adding an apostrophe and S. So asking if possessive “y’all’s” is a word is a little like asking if “cat’s” is a word. It’s a possessive form of a word.

But Mike was talking about the contraction, “y’all’s,” where the apostrophe and the S don’t show possession but instead represent the verb “is”: The cat’s in the yard. In this contracted form, “y’all’s” means “y’all is” or “you-all is.” That’s problematic because “y’all” usually takes “are” instead of “is.” “Y’all are coming to the potluck, right?”

That’s true regardless of whether you consider “y’all” to be exclusively plural. If it means “you” in the plural form, “You folks are welcome back any time,” or if it means singular “you,” “You, my friend, are welcome back any time”: Both take “are” and not “is” as the proper form of “to be.” So, either way, using “y’all’s” as a contraction of “y’all is” stretches subject-verb agreement standards to their limit.

Singular “y’all” is controversial, even among people who use it as a plural.

“Although the traditional use of ‘y’all’ is plural, and although many Southerners have stoutly rejected the idea that it’s ever used as a singular, there does seem to be strong evidence that it can refer to a single person,” writes Garner’s Modern American Usage. “For example, ‘See y’all later’ spoken to someone without a companion.”

In other words, how you use it is up to youse guys.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.


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