Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

On the Proper Use of ‘Y’all’

Brett Master recently complained about the use of y’all in the Rebel-Yankee Test:

Yall do come!“It is the proper address a single individual . . .when . . . the specific comments are applicable to more than just the individual him-/her-self. e.g., Bill speaking to John alone about his up coming family trip: ‘Y’all need to get visit the Grand Canyon, too, if you vist Hoover Dam’.”

I whole-heartedly agree with Brett. One of the problems Northerners have is understanding how y’all fits in Southern culture. You may, of course, use y’all when talking to one person, but you are always referring to that person and his/her family. The issue is not how many people you are addressing but what the y’all refers to.

Only one thing makes me madder than to hear a Yankee on TV or in the movies faking a Southern accent and saying, “Y’all come” to one person and referring only to that person. The one thing that makes me madder than that is to hear a Northerner say that Southerners misuse the term, implying we¬†don’t know the difference between singular and plural.

In my 20 years living in the South and all those years since visiting it several times a year, I have never heard a Southerner misuse this new pronoun which is now spreading rapidly across the US. It is, in fact, a perfect example of the intersect between language and culture.

For a natural born Southerner, it is simply impolite to invite one person to your home and not their entire family. So when a Southerner says, “Y’all come,” to one person, he or she is in fact REFERRING to that person’s entire family, hence only the plural is acceptable or grammatical.

The language and culture are braided together so tightly it is very difficult to study language outside the culture in which it is spoken. In fact, it is often very difficult to draw a line between the two.

9 Responses to “On the Proper Use of ‘Y’all’”

  1. Chris Saunders Says:

    On a flight from San Diego to the East Coast a few years ago, a flight attendent struck up a conversation with me after she heard me say you all in a conversation. I grew up in Baltimore, where you all is fairly common, and y’all is less common.

    Then my traveling companion said to flight attendent – “We don’t say y’all in California.” She incredulously replied: “Well, if y’all don’t say y’all. what do y’all say, anyway?” Classic.

  2. Chris Saunders Says:

    One more thing – when I speak to my relatives in Tennessee or Mississippi — I hear them say “all y’all” quite a bit.

  3. rbeard Says:


    Where I come from we also have possessives: yall’s, I’ve even heard yalls’s, as in, “Sombody just ran over yalls’s dog.”

    Yall is spreading and in many areas it is already a fully fledged pronoun on a par with I, you, he, she, it.


  4. Tim Ward Says:

    Your comments about inviting people to your home in the South are perfect. It really made me laugh to read them, and to be reminded of how subtle the cultural characteristics and charms can be in our various regions of the US.

    I can’t imagine hearing some polite Southern lady say to a man, “You come see me sometime!” Obviously, that’s quite the improper gesture!

  5. Lorena Says:

    I’m a native Calfornian and after VERY short stay in Tampa, Florida, Y’all hurts to hear everytime it’s said to me. It just never sounds correct nor does it sound educated = sorry y’all. I also learned that “across” becomes “acrosst” and to “wait on someone” is actually not as a server in a restaurant, but instead, to “wait FOR someone”…. Anymore actually means nowadays — “Parking is so expensive anymore” … and the list goes on and on! In my humble opinion, it does not sound quaint, nor does it sound educated.

  6. rbeard Says:

    I remain convinced that “yall” is a single pronoun now filling the empty space in the pronoun paradigm for a plural of “you”. I hear it throughout PA and other states all the way to California. Every day more and more people become comfortable with it and, so long as it serves a need, fills a lacuna in the grammar, I see no need to fear or resist it.

  7. friscodog Says:

    While attending graduate school at a major Southern university, I worked as a security guard for a sorority house. (Sounds like the set-up for a sit-com, I know.) I quickly learned to get over my Yankee aversion to “y’all.”

    If the ladies were going out on Friday night, primped and dressed up, and I said “you look lovely tonight,” whichever one I happened to be looking at would glare at me: she thought I was hitting on her. But if I said “y’all look lovely tonight,” my compliment was graciously accepted.

    Or: if you ask a clerk at the store “do you have X,” he or she might answer, defensively, “no I don’t.” But if you ask “do y’all have X,” you’re not putting them personally on the spot.

  8. Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog » Blog Archive » How’s ‘Yall’ Doing? Says:

    […] When my family sat down at the table in ‘The Egg and I” cafe in Boulder last week, the waitress dropped off the menus and said, “I’ll come back to help yall in a minute.” As someone who has been tracking the spread of the new pronoun yall (2nd person plural personal) for some time now (see my article and blog entry), I was curious as to where our waitres had picked it up. […]

  9. rbeard Says:

    Reply to No. 7–As I have said many times many ways: We NEED the pronoun ‘yall’. Here is more reasons why.

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