LINGUIST List 2.724

Mon 28 Oct 1991

Disc: You Guys

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , guys
  2. , Re: You-Guys
  3. Ron Smyth, Plurals vs. epithets
  4. Nancy L. Dray, "you guys"

Message 1: guys

Date: Fri, 25 Oct 1991 19:34 EDT
From: <>
Subject: guys
Subscribers may be interested in the Collins COBUILD dictionary entry for
"In informal American English, you can address a group of people as guys or
you guys, whether they are male or female. eg Hey, you guys! Come back here.
As a synonym they give "you folks".
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Message 2: Re: You-Guys

Date: Sat, 26 Oct 91 10:50:15 BST
From: <>
Subject: Re: You-Guys
some women in the uk fnd it aggravating to be addressed
as yo guys by americans. brits don't do it - it can seem
that women are being alowed to be honorary men or included
regardless or dismissively of their sex. is there a feminist
position on this in the states.
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Message 3: Plurals vs. epithets

Date: Fri, 25 Oct 91 22:48:19 EDT
From: Ron Smyth <>
Subject: Plurals vs. epithets
Has anyone noted the relationship between the pronominal
'you guys' and epithets such as 'you scum'? The difference
is marked prosodically: 'you SCUM', but 'YOU guys'.
Epithets like this form an open class ('you idiot', 'you dork', 'you
Conservative', 'you disgusting swindler', etc.). They can be used
as vocatives in both singular and plural ('You dork' is as good as
'You dorks'), but as arguments of the verb they must be plural.
Thus: 'You idiots make me sick!', but *'You idiot make me sick!'
 'Are you [*linguist/ linguists] [*idiot/idiots] going to try that again?'
Note the contrast between 'You make me sick, you idiot/you idiots',
where both forms work, and 'You idiots/*you idiot make me
sick!'. I interpret this to mean that 'you' is the head
of the epithet phrase, and that it is obligatorily plural, but that the
lexical NP is the head of the vocative phrase, with 'you' as a specifier.
But why should this type of epithet be restricted to plurals? Can
anyone offer insight from other languages? The evidence would have
to come from languages that have analogous you+NP forms, and
we would want to compare those which distinguish you sg. from you
plural with others which don't.
There is further evidence for this plurality constraint. 'You lot',
(not in my dialect, but familiar from British speakers), contains the
collective 'lot', which is morphologically singular. Because of
the ambiguity between singular and plural use for collectives, this
provides a good test of the plurality constraint. I presume that
 speakers of that dialect can say 'This lot is/are really off base',
with the usual uncertainty about the status of 'lot' (correct me if I'm
wrong), but, given the plurality constraint, not '*You lot
is really off base'. Again, this supports the argument
that the head is 'you', and is obligatorily plural.
It has been suggested that 'you guys' has become the second person
plural pronoun, but there is evidence against the notion that
 it has become fully morphologized: 'You guys are coming to dinner
with us, aren't you / * you guys?'. I presume that the same applies
to y'all and so on. Thus, all of these second person plurals still belong to
the productive paradigm. Is there any evidence to suggest otherwise?
For the epithets, my intuition is that there is a tendency
(perhaps only statistical) toward an interpretation with
negative connotations. For example, 'you slob' is negative
because of 'slob'. However, cases like 'you linguist', where the noun
is neutral in terms of evaluation, seem to have a negative
connotation without a full context. If real, this isn't a very
strong constraint, since you can easily get positive meanings
(as opposed to ungrammaticality) if the lexical item is positive:
'You've solved it, you genius!'; 'You did the dishes, you sweetie'.
With more neutral terms, the negative reading seems a little
better than the positive: 'You've ruined it, you linguist!', but
 '?You've solved it, you linguist!'.
I think that to get the for neutral terms such as the last
example I'd use pronoun copying: 'You've solved it, you
linguist you!'. (I'm not sure how widespread this copying is, but
it's perfectly fine for me). Copying seems better for positive than
for negative evaluations: 'You did the dishes, you sweetie you!', but
'You broke the dishes, ?you idiot you!'. Do you guys have
this copying in your dialects? If so, do you think that it leans
toward positive evaluation? Is this subject to areal variation?
Or is it just moi?
By the way, most of my teachers addressed their students
collectively as 'You people' instead of 'you guys', presumably
in order to maintain grammatical decorum. Hence: 'Are you
people ready for the test?' This extended to the vocative, but
without the 'you': 'Calm down, people (class, students, etc.)'.
Ron Smyth
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Message 4: "you guys"

Date: Sat, 26 Oct 91 22:30:07 CDT
From: Nancy L. Dray <>
Subject: "you guys"
Thanks for all the commentary. Just one follow-up
re "you guys" and gender:
The following, insofar as I've remembered it correctly,
is an anecdote told by Howard Aronson (I think I heard it
in his "Morphology and Syntax" class, quite a few years ago).
As I recall, he said he had been working in an otherwise
all-female office--the boss and all the other employees were
women--and one day the boss said the following (or something
like it):
 "You guys can all go to lunch now. You too, Howie."
Professor Aronson suggested (if I recall correctly) that
"you guys" might for at least some speakers be used only to a
group of persons the same sex as the speaker, not to a group
that includes persons of the opposite sex.
I now see some other possible interpretations, but today I am
sending heaps of messages to LINGUIST (I've been saving them
up...) and I don't want to try anyone's patience. So I will just
leave the anecdote as it stands and let the other possible
linguistic analyses be an exercise to the reader (and the reader
can ask me, if interested). Perhaps if I show some restraint
now y'all will forgive me for not having been able to resist
jocularity in my "expressives" posting....
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