9

As Huddleston & Pullum note, "you" can sometimes be used as a determiner:

You idiots never learn.

I'll never understand you idiots.

But this generally can't occur in the singular:

*You idiot never learn.

*I'll never understand you idiot.

But they mention that it can be used in the singular as part of a vocative:

You never learn, you idiot!

You idiot, I'll never understand you!

Is there a reason why the restriction to the plural exists everywhere except for the vocative? Or is this just a purely arbitrary rule?

14
  • 1
    You started off as a plural (singular was thou). Perhaps that's a good enough reason to retain it in specific (and rare) circumstances. Mar 25, 2023 at 16:44
  • 1
    Where is it that Huddleston and Pullum note this? Mar 26, 2023 at 2:27
  • 1
    Why? ... Because! Isn’t that the beauty of descriptive grammar? You might be interested in this paper (see especially p. 798 at end). Mar 26, 2023 at 15:57
  • 1
    @MarcInManhattan — Probably because a singular vocative we is impossible. *We’ll never learn, we idiot! Mar 26, 2023 at 21:29
  • 1
    @MarcInManhattan "We" allows this determinative use, as do "us" and occasionally "them" in informal speech: "them people never call you back."
    – alphabet
    Mar 26, 2023 at 21:38

3 Answers 3

3

This is an answer based upon observable grammatical facts, but not drawn from any published, vetted grammar reference.

Verbs must agree with pronouns occurring as subjects or within subjects:

  1. He is lucky.
  2. He who is without blame is lucky.
  3. Her student couldn't attend. They were otherwise engaged.

In (1) and (2) we see the verb be agreeing with the pronoun he. In (3) we see that the pronoun they, as the subject, commands plural verb agreement despite the fact that it is being used to refer to a single person.

However, in NPs with common or proper nouns occurring as the head of the nominal phrase, the verb agrees with that noun in terms of number, and is always third person if the noun is singular. It does not matter who the noun refers to:

  1. Araucaria is writing you an answer.
  2. *Araucaria am writing you an answer.

In (4-5) we see that although Araucaria refers to me, the writer, the verb be must take a third person singular form, not a first person one. (5) is ungrammatical.

Now, even with the verb be, which is more highly inflected than any other English verb, the form of the verb is identical for the first person, second person and third person plural:

  1. we are happy
  2. you both are happy
  3. they are happy

And, as with the pronoun they, it does not matter if the pronoun you is used to refer to a single person or multiple people:

  1. you, my friend, are happy

Arguably, an English verb table for be should look something like this:

1st person singular: am
3rd person singular: is
Plural: are

And it should be understood that you in English is always grammatically plural (in terms of grammatical number, not semantics).

The Original Poster's question

The Original Poster asks why we can say both you idiots (plural noun), and you idiot (singular noun), but only the first of these can occur as a subject.

We noted two points further above. Firstly, a verb must agree with a pronoun in a subject NP. Secondly, an NP with a singular common or proper noun as head must take a third person singular form of the verb.

With the NP you idiots these rules don't present a problem:

  1. You idiots are unbelievable.

However, with the singular you idiot we have a problem. The pronoun you means that only a plural form of the verb is permitted, but the singular common noun means that only a singular form can be used. The result is that whether we use a singular or plural form of the verb, the result is ungrammatical:

  1. *You idiot is unbelievable.
  2. *You idiot are unbelievable.

I deeply suspect that this is at the heart of the problem with using you idiot as a subject. However, as Pullum always says: with regard to English grammar, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. My reason for saying this is that you idiot is not available as a subject for a non-finite clause either:

  1. It was necessary for you idiots to win the tournament.
  2. *It was necessary for you idiot to win the tournament.

Such is life ...

8
  • Are you sure 14 is ungrammatical? It is not obvious to me that it is.
    – The Z
    Jun 20, 2023 at 17:45
  • Interesting hypothesis! This doesn't quite explain why "you idiot" also can't be an object ("I hate you idiot" sounds wrong to me). One possibility is just that, since the NP can't occur as subject due to this person/number issue, it can't occur anywhere else either. But then you have to ask why it is OK in vocatives.
    – alphabet
    Jun 20, 2023 at 18:00
  • @Araucaria I believe you mean (5) is ungrammatical, not (4) is ungrammatical. Great answer so +1 :) Jun 20, 2023 at 18:33
  • 1
    @QuackE.Duck Oops, yes! Thanks for catching that:) Jun 20, 2023 at 20:33
  • 1
    @TheZ No, I'm not absolutely sure. It seems to hit my grammar bone, but not hard. (It's better for my tentative theory if it is grammatical, of course). Perhaps I should give it a < ? > instead of a < * > . Jun 20, 2023 at 20:35
0
  1. You idiots never learn.
  2. *You idiot never learn.
  3. Idiot! You never learn.
  4. The idiot! He never learns.
  5. You never learn, you idiot.
  6. [O] You idiot! You never learn. (vocative)
  7. *O Jesus said that he could walk on water. (vocative cannot be the subject)
  8. Murderer! You will hang! (Interjection no determiner)

As a singular countable noun, you would expect “idiot” to take a determiner, however, as an interjection, it does not (3). It is the resemblance of the vocative to an interjection (6) that allows the omission of a determiner, and neither the vocative nor an interjection can be the subject of a sentence. You idiot therefore must be either a vocative or an interjection and cannot be the subject.

Consider also

*I'll never understand you idiot.

I'll never understand, you idiot.

I'll never understand you, idiot.

You idiot, I'll never understand.

Idiot! I'll never understand you.

Idiot, I'll never understand you.

I’ll confess that once again, I have no idea what Pullam and Huddleston are talking about. If they thought that “you” was a determiner, then why did they write *You idiot never learn. Verbs do not agree with determiners – it should be * “You idiot never learns

OED gives a very satisfactory explanation that has a pedigree of about 1000 years without being an iconoclast and without a bee in its bonnet.

If you look at the examples above and below, you will see that they all can be seen as having the ellipsis of “who is/are”. However, * “You idiot never learns” requires a determiner with the addition: You who are an idiot never learns. The determiner cannot be part of the ellipsis.

There are some examples below where this ellipsis is not immediately apparent, e.g. Reckons you lot have sold out, but here, “lot” also has the normal ellipsis = lot of traitors/cowards, or can be implied/defined by some other characteristic that is contextually indicated.

You (pron.)

As object or subject. 3. Defined or made precise by a qualifying word or phrase. Cf. we pron. 1c, us pron. 2.

OE Ælfric Lives of Saints (Julius) (1881) I. 38 Ic for Cristes lufe forlæt eow ealle, and middaneardlice lustas swa swa meox forseah.

1965 B. Kaufman Up Down Staircase xii. 82 You teachers are all alike.

1982 P. Redmond Brookside (Mersey TV transmission script) (O.E.D. Archive) Episode 5. 46 Reckons you lot have sold out.

1994 S. Braude Mpho's Search ix. 50 As for the rest of you chaps—scoot—into bed. Lights out in ten minutes.

We (pron)

1.c. Defined or made precise by a qualifying word or phrase.

OE Cynewulf Crist II 746 Swa we men sculon heortan gehygdum hlypum styllan of mægne in mægen.

1918 Act 8 George V c. 1 We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom..in Parliament assembled.

2003 Chatelaine (Canada) Jan. 20/2 It's what we psychologists call cheap peace.

Us (pron)

2. In restricted use with defining term added.

OE Ælfric Catholic Homilies: 2nd Ser. (Cambr. Gg.3.28) xxxii. 275
Eft syððan þæs ælmihtigan godes sunu..asende us his apostolum þone halgan gast of heofenum on fyres hiwe.

1976 W. W. Warner Beautiful Swimmers ii. 21 A townie named Skeeter Yates used to tell us city kids that a soft crab was one ‘caught in the act’.

1989 J. Autry Life after Mississippi i. 3 Worms or grubs from under a wet log turned over by one of us boys.

7
  • So, in vocative "you idiot," what part of speech is "you"?
    – alphabet
    Jun 20, 2023 at 23:32
  • In which sentence?
    – Greybeard
    Jun 20, 2023 at 23:51
  • In "You never learn, you idiot."
    – alphabet
    Jun 21, 2023 at 0:15
  • "You (nominative singular pronoun) never learn, you (nominative singular pronoun probably disjunctive) idiot (noun.)" Compare UK Tyneside dialect "I'm a winner, me" and the French "Tu es gagneur, toi!")
    – Greybeard
    Jun 21, 2023 at 11:07
  • 1
    @Greybeard "I'm a winner, me" is a left dislocation. Quite frequent in standard English too (though not formal, of course!). Jun 21, 2023 at 13:02
0

It's just a hypothesis, but it is based on rules that are valid in English and in some European languages, at least in the ones I speak.

I think this inability of "you" to be a determiner in the singular when it is not vocative has to do with DETERMINERS EXCLUDING EACH OTHER. Let me explain.

We all know that some determiners just can't be combined before a noun, as Cambridge shows:

We don’t use two referring determiners or two quantifying determiners together:

  • *We sold the our house.

You will rightfully ask what this has got to do with your question. If you say:

I can never understand you idiots.

I would analyse you as the direct object of understand and idiots as the apposition of you (I know, how preposterous!). So I could understand this sentence as:

I can never understand you [who are] idiots.

Note that if I made the bold part into a statement on its own, I would say

You are idiots

NOT

You are THE idiots.

I am guessing that if you COULD ONLY say "You are the idiots", then "you" would not be able to be a determiner in the plural either.


This is what happens in the singular. We can ONLY say

You are AN idiot

as

*You are idiot

is ungrammatical.1

Since an idiot already has a determiner ('an'), it makes sense that it is not possible to add another determiner ('you') before 'idiot':

*I can never understand you AN idiot.2

which according to the apposition hypothesis could be re-written as

I can never understand you [who are] AN idiot.

However, in the vocative singular, you can miraculously say, without the article "an":

Idiot!

You cannot call a man this name to his face using an article:

*An idiot!

Therefore, You can be used before idiot! as a determiner, because it does not clash with any other determiners, particularly with an in our case.


1 That is, when idiot is used as a noun, not as an adjective.

2 Note that we can say I can't understand you, you idiot!, where the second "you" is correctly used as a determiner in the vocative.

5
  • Here's one potential complication: why is "I can't understand half you people" OK but "I can't understand half you" wrong? (To my ear, at least. Likewise with "all" instead of "half.") It does seem like "half you people" is valid because "you" is a determiner there and accepts predeterminer modifiers; if it were an appositive, we'd expect "half you" and "half you people" to be equally (in)valid.
    – alphabet
    Jun 20, 2023 at 23:30
  • Note that "half" can be combined with articles (half the people), whereas pronouns can't. You cannot say "my the people" or "my a/the friend". I think that's where the issue lies.
    – fev
    Jun 21, 2023 at 7:03
  • @FEV You can't have two central Determiners. of any description: *some these people / *a Bob's friend / *this a person / *any the people etc. This is why *my a friend is ungrammatical in English :) Jun 21, 2023 at 12:59
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Yes, I think this is the point I am making to explain why "you" can't be a determiner in the singular.
    – fev
    Jun 21, 2023 at 13:11
  • Seems your theory involve treating you both as the object and the determiner at the same time, which is interesting but Idk if it makes sense.
    – The Z
    Jun 22, 2023 at 14:09

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