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The construction of the word to me implies that "you" is singular, whereas "y'all" is plural.

To a football team: "Y'all are going to play a great game." To a tennis player: "You are going to play a great game."

However, I hear southerners address me personally as Y'all quite often.

What's the correct usage?

Aside: Comments that y'all is improper are not helpful.

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I'm a Southerner of the "you/y'all" variety (although all y'all doesn't sound foreign), so I'm curious if you could give a couple of examples where they're addressing you personally with y'all. I sometimes wonder if it's not either a phonetic misunderstanding (e.g. a drawled 'ya' for you) or a situation where you may be the only person in the room, but the speaker is talking/asking not only about you but also 'your people' (e.g. family, colleagues, whatever is context appropriate) –  Dusty Jan 6 '11 at 20:14
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A quick google had the following quote on the wikipedia page for y'all which sort of lines up with what i'd think: Nevertheless, it has been questioned very often, and with a considerable showing of evidence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, to be sure, you-all indicates a plural, implicit if not explicit, and thus means, when addressed to a single person, 'you and your folks' or the like, but the hundredth time it is impossible to discover any such extension of meaning. – H.L. Mencken,The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States –  Dusty Jan 6 '11 at 20:16
    
@Dusty -- This makes sense. The speakers could be referring to me and my team collectively rather than just me. They could also be referring to my company as a collective. –  Chris Cudmore Jan 6 '11 at 20:30
    
@chris - Yeah, both of those scenarios are highly plausible. It's fairly common in any situation where the person is expecting you to act as a speaker for some collective group, and the y'all is the marker that they're interested in the group, not just the individual in front of them. –  Dusty Jan 6 '11 at 21:18
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Living in Texas for the past eight years I have heard the following used over and over: Y'all, y'alls, y'all's, all y'all, all y'alls, and all y'all's. (Think about this — "I bought y'all a yawl.") Can't wait to get back to Minnesota where all y'all have to deal with are ufda, ubetcha, ya shure you bet, don't ya know. –  user51526 Sep 9 '13 at 14:04
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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

From what I understand, most dialects work as you describe: you = singular and y'all = plural.

There is some controversy over whether some dialects have extended this further, such that y'all = singular and "all y'all" = plural.

Here is a discussion over at Language Log, where they say that there is a lot of disagreement about this. I think the overall sense from this article is that people have anecdotes and random quotes where people use y'all as a singular, but no person from the South who attests that "yes, this is what I do."

And here is a followup discussion. Here there is a similar type of disconnect between anecdote and speaker intuition. There seems to be mention that in Oklahoma, y'all can be used for singular and plural, which, if true, might be fueling a false conclusion about "all y'all" being the plural of singular y'all.

There is a lot more in there, and it is worth a read for anyone interested, but the last thing I wanted to mention was this hypothesis at the end of that page:

Thomas Nunnally (1994) has offered a second hypothesis for the emergence of yall as a singular. He suggests that it may well be expanding to fill the role of a polite singular, just as you did several centuries ago. He points out that many of the citations of yall-singular show the form occurring at the edges of discourse-in greetings, partings, and so forth. The following citation, provided to us by Robin Sabino (1994), certainly fulfills this function. Sabino overheard an African-American waitress in an Opelika, Alabama, restaurant say to a customer eating alone, "How are you-all's grits?"


All of this may seem strange, but if you look at the origin of you itself, the same thing happened: it used to be that thou/thee was 2nd person singular and ye/you was 2nd person plural, but as we know, plural you became the 2nd person pronoun for singular and plural (in Standard English, at least). So these kinds of shifts are possible.


Note: This has been extensively edited in light of some research I found over at Language Log.

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How are these dialects separated? Is it an east-west thing? –  Chris Cudmore Jan 6 '11 at 19:58
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And sometimes: "you" strictly singular, "y'all" inclusive or indeterminate, and "all y'all" definitively plural (and possibly indicating that each and every person so addressed in included while plain "y'all" may allow for exceptions). –  dmckee Jan 6 '11 at 20:13
    
@dmckee: Ah, that is interesting too! –  Kosmonaut Jan 6 '11 at 20:47
    
@chris: I wish I could find a paper that discusses this, but so far I haven't. I'd like to know myself. I can say that my wife's southern Georgia area dialect is the normal you/y'all type. –  Kosmonaut Jan 6 '11 at 20:55
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@Kosmonaut: I knew a guy in college who was from Arkansas who rarely (if ever) said "Y'all" by itself, but routinely said, "All y'all," to speak to a group of people, as in, "Are all y'all going to the football game this weekend?" What's more, the two words were pronounced as if they were one. –  Scott Mitchell Jan 6 '11 at 23:14
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"Y'all" was originally coined as a contraction of "you all" and thus was originally used as the second-person plural pronoun, comparable to "ustedes" in Spanish and "vous" in French. It fills a void in the English language as compared to Latin languages and even German, which all have at least one second-person plural pronoun. Classically, "you" has had both the singular and plural roles, and if a distinction had to be made, the phrase "all of you" or "you all" is correct for the plural. The dual meaning is likely French in origin; the pronoun "vous" in French, in addition to being the general second-person plural, is also used as a polite second-person singular. It's an artifact of culture, particularly high culture, similar to the "royal 'we'". The term carries into English through a combination of English's beginnings in French and also through off-and-on English obsessions with French culture throughout history.

Its usage as a singular, if one has to try to make the shoe fit, may come from a mingling of English-derived Deep South and French-influenced Creole/Cajun cultures. "Y'all" may have come into common use through Creole adaptation of the term to replace both of the uses of the French counterpart "vous".

Now, IMO that's stuffing the shoe on the wrong foot. Vernacular speech, no matter the language, is full of "common-use" grammar errors. As a native Okie and naturalized Texan, IMO the use of "y'all" as anything other than a contraction of "you all" is more of the same.

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English does not have its beginnings in French. English and German are both from the Germanic language branch, while the Romance languages belong to the Italic language branch. –  Kosmonaut Jun 14 '11 at 17:25
    
English as we know it is an amalgam of early German and French dialects; the Saxon occupants of the British Isles were invaded and occupied by the Normans from the Continent, and many aspects of what we now consider English culture, including language, are French-influenced. The influence continued as French became a popular court language in Europe during the Renaissance and Classical periods. For instance, take the word "house"; it's root is the German "haus". However, the word "mansion" is rooted in the French "maison". English is full of similar examples. –  KeithS Jun 14 '11 at 17:44
    
"English as we know it is an amalgam of early German and French dialects" — this isn't true. German and English both share a common ancestor, but English didn't come from German at all — they both sprang from Proto-Germanic, as did the Scandinavian languages, Dutch, and so on. By the time French began influencing the English lexicon (as a result of the Norman Conquest in 1066), English had already existed for about 600 years (and Proto-Germanic for thousands of years before that). –  Kosmonaut Jun 14 '11 at 18:07
    
The influence of French is almost exclusively vocabulary — about 30% of it was borrowed, but then it was anglicized and assimilated into English (not the other way around). Furthermore, our syntax, phonology, and prosody has always been quite distinct from French. Contributing to the lexicon is the most superficial way of influencing a language. We can easily borrow words like karaoke, madrasa, and safari without having to have any fundamental link between English grammar and the grammars of these languages. –  Kosmonaut Jun 14 '11 at 18:09
    
To add to this: much of the French and especially Latinate vocabulary that has been so characteristic of English was added much later than the Norman invasion, especially during the Renaissance. When other languages turned to their own roots and stems to build new vocabulary for the new age, English turned to Latin, Greek and some French. –  siride Sep 9 '13 at 22:42
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