Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Public Service Announcement

Dear Fellow Writers,

"Y'all" is the second person PLURAL pronoun in Southern US English. Plural. Not singular. Which is only logical, when you consider that it's a contraction of "you all."

You may think you've heard a Southerner use "y'all" in the singular, but this born-and-bred Alabamian believes you are mistaken. If a Southerner asks her friend, "Are y'all going to the game Saturday?" she doesn't mean, Are YOU, the one person I'm talking to right now, going to the game? she means, Are you, Bobby, and the kids all going?

I've met a few people who think "y'all" is singular and "all y'all" is plural. No. "All y'all" either refers to a large group or is sort of a stand-in for "everybody" when you're trying to get a group's attention. As in, "If all y'all will gather over here, the photographer is ready to take the picture," or, "All y'all should come downstairs now--the ribs are ready."

Note too that it's spelled "y'all," not "ya'll." And please don't write "ya" instead of "you" when your Southern character is using second person singular. To my ears, Southerners are no more likely to clip the "ooh" sound off "you" than any other speakers of American English. If anything, since some Southerners really do talk a bit slower than their Yankee brethren, they're more likely to fully sound out "you."

Yes, I'm in Her Grace, the Duchess of Pedantry mode here. But badly written Southern dialect is nails on a chalkboard to me. Actually, it's one of the reasons I don't write dialect--or, at least, I don't use misspelled words to indicate accents--for any of my British characters. I try to avoid anachronisms or Americanisms for all my characters, and I use diction and word choice to show differences in class, education, and personality. But having read so many non-Southerners botch my native accent, I don't trust myself to write Cockney or Scottish or whatever in a way that won't turn native speakers against me.


  1. Hm. My mom (who is Californian, but lived in North Carolina for a while) told me that in most places, y'all is plural, while in the very deep rural south y'all becomes singular and all y'all is the plural. I trust you over her.

    I agree with you whole-heartedly about dialect. I have, very rarely, seen it used to spectacular effect (Book of Night Women), but usually it just gives me a headache trying to figure out how they meant it to sound.

  2. It's always possible there are little pockets of y'all usage I don't know about, but I grew up in what was then rural north-central Alabama (it's turned into a Birmingham suburb since I left), and it was always plural there, as it is where one of my brothers lives in rural Georgia.

  3. My wife mocks me because I do use "y'all" as singular and plural both (I know it's wrong, but I still do it).
    A story I'm working on set in Georgia actually brings this up.

  4. I would mock you for that, too, Fraser. :-)

    My husband just mocks me for saying such Southernisms as "might could" and "fixin' to" in my no-longer-especially-Southern accent. (I don't think I really sound like a local Northwesterner, partly because so many of us are imports that I don't have a chance to pick it up.) He also laughs at how quickly my accent comes back when I'm watching football and it's not going well. I swear at baseball in my current accent, since I'd already left the South before becoming a fan.