7

As far as inflectional morphology is concerned, English isn't exactly a rich language. Still, the present-tense paradigm of the copular verb be shows that even English distinguishes between grammatical person and grammatical number:

Person  Singular  Plural
1st am  are
2nd  are are
3rd  is  are

Obviously, the singular forms for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Persons are all different, which means that to adequately describe English verbal paradigms, the grammatical person of the subject needs to be considered. We also see that as far as the 1st and 3rd Persons are concerned, there's also a difference between Singular and Plural. However, this is not true for the 2nd Person: here, the paradigmatic cell is filled with are regardless of number.

The same pattern is true for the pronouns, the only other part of English morphosyntax that I can think of where person and number matter. Regardless of the pronoun type (Subject or Object pronoun, possessive pronoun, or reflexive pronoun), there's always a difference between Singular and Plural in the 1st and 3rd Persons, but never in the 2nd Person. For illustration, here is the paradigm for (female) Subject pronouns:

Person Singular Plural
1st I we
2nd you you
3rd she they

(I assume that historically, even the 2nd Person distinguished between Singular and Plural, but that the contrast disappeared over time – perhaps thou was the historical 2nd Singular pronoun, and you was used both as a 2nd Plural pronoun and as a highly formal alternative to the informal 2nd Singular thou?)

But I'm primarily interested in present-day English: For verbs and pronouns, English morphosyntax doesn't appear to distinguish between Singular and Plural in the 2nd Person. Is there any grammatical context where we do find a contrast between the 2nd Singular and the 2nd Plural?

5
  • @Lambie: Believe me when I say that I don't have a problem with that at all – I'm fully aware that syncretisms are frequent property of inflectional paradigms (after all, are can be several things as well). This is strictly a question about inflectional contrasts and the resulting morphological paradigms: if there isn't a difference ever, it would follow that the English pronoun paradigms include five cells, with two cells for 1st and 3rd Person and a single cell for 2nd Person. This may not sound exciting – but it's something that inflectional morphologists would like to know. :)
    – Schmuddi
    Jul 6 at 17:17
  • 9
    Lots of dialects have separate 2nd person plural pronouns (youse, y'all, etc). See this question.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 6 at 18:10
  • 1
    And of course, there is Quaker Plain Speech: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2732
    – Spencer
    Jul 7 at 19:11
  • Note that even "y'all" has begun to lose a distinction between singular and plural in some dialects. Yous[e] can similarly be singular or plural. You'uns might be headed that way; I've heard people say "You'nsall" to pluralize it. Jul 8 at 13:04
  • You might want to compare English with German, where the polite 2nd-person pronoun is very similar to the 3rd-person plural pronoun. As I understand it, English just gave up on the 2nd person familiar and kept the polite pronoun.
    – The Photon
    Jul 8 at 16:03

4 Answers 4

28

Yes, there's a difference in the reflexive/emphatic pronouns:

  1. John, please do this by yourself.
  2. Kids, please do this by yourselves.
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  • 1
    Thanks. That's so obvious that it's embarrassing... And I even claimed in my question that the reflexive pronouns are the same for 2nd Sg and 2nd Pl. I must have been asleep when I wrote that.
    – Schmuddi
    Jul 6 at 17:24
  • 7
    "Kids, please do this by yourselves" may suggest they can do this together without involving me, while "Kids, please do this by yourself" may suggest each kid should do this separately from the other kids.
    – Henry
    Jul 7 at 13:31
  • 1
    This would typically be used without the 'by'.
    – Spencer
    Jul 7 at 18:54
  • 1
    @Spencer Says who? Jul 7 at 19:34
  • 5
    @Spencer One may be more common than the other, but the two mean different things, so “this” (the sentences in the answer) wouldn’t typically be used without by. Without by it means ‘please do it without external help’; with by it means ‘please do it in no one else’s company’; cf. “He went to the store himself” (no one went for him) vs “He went to the store by himself” (no one went with him). Jul 7 at 19:57
6

You can find examples of this if you go back many years...
The King James version of the Bible has both "thou art" (singular) and "ye are" (plural).

Genesis 42:9
And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies

1 Samuel 17:33
And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him

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  • 1
    As well as thee/ye as a direct object and thee/you as an indirect object.
    – Davislor
    Jul 7 at 15:51
4

Which English? In talking with a person from Ireland a few years ago, they said they still use "ye" for second plural. I did not fully understand, because in Texas my Latin teacher (who was later my English teacher), made us use ya'll. ;-)

2

Many dialects of English have noticed the "problem" you've discovered and have angled to fix it by creating a new plural you -- you guys, yinz, you'uns, ye, you lot and, of course, y'all. I do not know of any dialects that have decided to "fix" the verb inflections that go with them, although the Quakers tried really hard to keep thou around for a while (if they aren't still trying).

2
  • Ye is the archaic subject case of you, just as thou was the subject case of thee. Does any dialect distinguish ye as plural from you as singular or vice versa?
    – phoog
    Jul 8 at 9:27
  • 1
    Bizzarely, y'all is sometimes used as a singular pronoun; the plural in that instance is all y'all. Source: jstor.org/stable/454993
    – Lunivore
    Jul 8 at 14:20

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