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We went to a pizza restaurant the other evening and the waiter insisted on referring to us as 'guys'.

I responded by calling him 'guy'. 'What kind of beer have you got, guy?'

My wife said she thought this seemed offensive. So why does it supposedly work in the plural, but not in the singular?

  • 3
    But, you see that guy over there? I'll have what he's having. – SrJoven Dec 5 '14 at 14:48
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    The social situation is much more important here than the grammar. But to the grammar, 'guy' singular as a vocative "Hey you, guy!' just doesn't sound good at all. 'Guys!' plural vocative is fine, but the singular is not. – Mitch Dec 5 '14 at 16:40
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    @AndrewLeach but the OP's question specifically mentions the perceived offensiveness of saying "guy" vs. "guys". It is a question of politeness, and context. I could use the term guy as a compliment e.g. He's a great guy, which is perfectly acceptable, but in a different setting, e.g. a client in a restaurant who feels insulted by the waiter in some way, then What kind of beer have you got, guy? takes on a whole different meaning. – Mari-Lou A Dec 6 '14 at 1:28
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    Because, in the vocative, "guys" is an irregular plural of "dude". :-) – David Richerby Dec 6 '14 at 11:34
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    @WS2 It's completely inoffensive and is essentially a singular version of "guys" when used in the vocative. – David Richerby Dec 6 '14 at 14:06
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The answer is, "Because you can".

'Why' questions almost never have a useful answer in relation to language.

But actually, there is a kind of regularity here. There are several other plural terms which can be used as forms of address, but the singular is either not used, or has a rather different social meaning.

Examples:

  • People works, but person doesn't
  • Traditionally a military officer might address his troops as men, but wouldn't address one of them as man.
  • Ladies is polite, but lady is much less so (and not used in British English).
  • Children is normal, but child as a form of address is pretty well obsolete.
  • You can say friends to your friends, but only people who don't know you will address you as friend, and probably only if they're trying to scam you or sell you a car.

and so on.

  • All comments deleted. We are discussing English, not etiquette. – Andrew Leach Dec 5 '14 at 21:22
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    "Children is normal, but child as a form of address is pretty well obsolete" Except in the American south, where it's quite common. – T.J. Crowder Dec 6 '14 at 11:17
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    The relationship between "ladies" and "lady" really caught me by surprise when you pointed it out. When, saying them aloud it's obvious but it just seems like "lady" should still be polite. It's a polite word. – John Tyree Dec 6 '14 at 18:02
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    Are you implying a difference between trying to scam someone and selling a car? – user2813274 Dec 6 '14 at 22:03
  • I would say that most or all of these vary by the local conventions of place and time. Many of these singulars (all but "person") could have been used to address people in the US or Britain a hundred years or so ago. "You, man, get over here!" "Good evening, m'lady!" "Come here, my child!" "Well met, good friend!" And as T.J. Crowder mentioned, currently in other places. – Dronz Dec 7 '14 at 17:46
7

It works in the plural because it's commonly used in the plural. It doesn't work in the singular because it's not commonly used in the singular. That's my short answer.

My longer answer is that there is a continuing crisis (perhaps too serious a word, but we're all language enthusiasts, right?) in both second-person pronouns and gender-inclusive pronouns. While English no longer has distinct second-person pronouns to convey formality/politeness/social distance, we still use words (particularly forms of address) to convey those sociolinguistic matters. Like "sir" and "mam," to convey distance or formality. But those have become less common in many regions and many social realms. On the other hand, we see an increase in those that convey closeness or informality (and I'll confess North American-centeredness here), such as "man" and "dude" (which I've even heard adolescent women use to each other). This is part of the semantics of solidarity, which is used to bridge social distances, a bridge which can be built either way (from higher to lower or from lower to higher (roughly conceived)). It does indeed seem more and more common for those types of bridging projects to be approved unilaterally by the "lower;" (say subordinate or whatever you will if you don't like "lower"); i.e. people use casual terms of address even with those in a perceived superior position or across social distance. It's "semantics of solidarity." And please educate me about the situation in GB or elsewhere because I'm talking primarily about North America, where as a child I would never think of addressing my friends parents by their first names but now "Mr." and "Mrs." are becoming anomalous in this situation. Likewise other situations.

So the waiter's use of "guys" is wrapped up in those ideas. And I suspect that your question relates primarily to the semantics of solidarity, and secondarily to the singular vs plural.

On that point: we have many terms of address that are used exclusively in plural, such as "ladies and gentlemen." When have you heard "good evening, lady and gentleman"? And "guys."

Other terms of address can be used in both singular and plural, in the same situations, such as "dawg(s)," and "chap(s)."

And some terms of address are used in both plural and singular, but differently.

For example:

Uniformed officer to uniformed soldiers: "All right men! Fall in!"

That same officer, annoyed because that little puke Private Wilson wasn't listening, would not say to said puke: "I said fall in, man!" However, that same officer might, later in the officer's mess, talking with an equal, say "Man, that Private Wilson sure has his head up his ass."

And of course there are some terms of address that are only used in singular, such as "sir," "ma'am," and "bro."

Now let's return to the pizza restaurant. What is the acceptable plural, gender-inclusive second person pronoun that a waiter should choose when addressing a couple? It's a question that may not have confounded a similar waiter in our sexist past, when he would have simply addressed the man. But we've progressed [sic]. So what should he choose? I suspect that with people under a certain age, the prevailing semantics of solidarity allow "guys." But to many over a certain age (no, I'm not going to specify) the use of "guys" raises hackles. The alternative, for those in the grey area, is to simply avoid a term of address altogether and stick to the inclusive pronoun "you," a la "Good evening. Can I get you something to drink" [looking alternately at both people]. Or one may direct questions singularly to each half of the couple. Alternatively, many people where I am from will use "folks."

Of course, there are regional solutions as well, such as the American south's "y'all." Though a friend from Kansas informed me that "y'all" is singular and that "all y'all" is plural. Perhaps that's a distinction born as "y'all" migrated to parts of the Midwest.

A final note: you were in a pizza restaurant, drinking beer. If we define culture - in this blended global world - not by nation but by circumstance, your waiter was surely a conformist. And while he may not be a user at this site, he may have "posted" a question about your "guy" comment in the informal ELU that is every staff room, kitchen (restaurant or otherwise), and other gathering place of humans.

  • Excellent answer, bringing out variations in dialects of language and how grammar changes over time and from place to place. It's not everyday that view language from a social perspective. – user3182445 Dec 6 '14 at 6:25
  • FWIW, I've always thought that the vocative use of "guys" was actually a contraction of "you guys", i.e. the otherwise missing second person plural subjective pronoun. By this analysis tacking on a vocative to "What (kind of beer) have you got?" rightly sounds strange. – H Stephen Straight Dec 10 '14 at 0:00
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You can use the word "guy" in the singular form, usually anywhere you can also politely use the word "man". Some examples:

"I went to the museum and I met a guy who works for our neighbor"

"I saw a guy riding his bike near the freeway"

In both of the above examples, the word "man" could be used instead of "guy" with no change in meaning.

The reason "'What kind of beer have you got, guy?'" is offensive is you are directly talking to the person, who probably just shared his/her name. When referring to a group of people, it would be awkward for the waiter to say "Joe, Susan, Mary, Bob, and Harry, what are you having to drink?"

Addressing an individual directly using the term "guy" as you did is like announcing "I cannot be bothered to learn or remember your name, AND I wanted to let you know that I don't know your name"

  • This is the correct answer - it should be the top. I would have put the last bit in bold and changed that last phrase to "...AND I wanted to let you know that I don't care about you name." The issue is that "guy" is a neutral word, but used in this way it becomes insulting. Terms implying friendship such as "buddy, pal, mate, darling" may come over well or badly depending on the situation. If you want to call a waiter/waitress over and don't want to use a phrase like "Excuse me" or "Hi", they are not going to object to "Sir" or "Miss" (which don't sound too formal if said in the right tone.) – Level River St Dec 6 '14 at 20:53
  • No, this explanation doesn't work. There are lots of contexts in which we haven't been given the names of the individuals in a group. That explanation would imply that if we hadn't been given their names then "Guy" would be acceptable as a term of address. – Colin Fine Dec 14 '15 at 20:44
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Questions of 'rudeness' are not easily answered by language rules. Different people in different situations will find different forms of address more or less offensive.

Addressing a group of people (such as 'guys' or 'ladies and gentlemen') is itself considered less formal, so less formal language is allowed (though if it were a particularly fancy resturaunt, 'guys' may have been rude itself).

But when addressing an individual, especially when making a request, a more personal or polite pronoun may be expected - such as 'sir' or by addressing them by their first name.

And this is not a grammatical rule - technically if you accept 'guy' as a proper pronoun, there is nothing wrong with how you addressed that person. This is an ettiquite rule, which is a beast in and of itself.

1

Guy can be used as a term of singular address, it's just not common and can sound dated (50s-ish) or rude (note current show South Park does this all the time as a stereotype for Canadian characters). Another descriptor that comes to mind is 'used-car salesman speak' - a manner of address which sounds overly/falsely familiar/friendly coming from someone with hidden/dishonest intent.

In interesting contrast related to Sarah's answer, replacing 'guy' with 'man' in the original question would be perfectly acceptable and 'normal' as it is a common form of address. In some cases, bro (or bros) would work as well. It's all about context, relationship, and situation as most of the answers here already touch on. Rusty Tuba's answer expands quite a bit on this, and whether or not it's a 'good' thing.

1

It's not a formal term of address.

Not necessarily offensive to all, but the address may sound weird depending on the setting.

However, may be it's just me, but I would have, to add politeness in conversation, dropped 'guy'.

'What kind of beer have you got?'

  • 2
    In your examples "guy" is not a term of address. – Centaurus Dec 5 '14 at 16:00

protected by tchrist Dec 6 '14 at 17:47

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