The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 7, 2009

A Hole in English

Filed under: English is weird,grammar,history of English,language evolving — amba12 @ 10:42 pm

English is so stripped-down, so shorn of grammatical clues, thingamabobs, and “this end up” arrows, that if you didn’t study Latin, German, or Russian, you’d never realize that English too had a dative case (indirect object) and an accusative case (direct object). To illustrate:  in “give [to] the dog his food,” the dog is the indirect object; in “walk the dog,” the dog is the direct object.  In German, the language in which I discovered these things, the dative “to the dog” is “dem Hund,” and the accusative dog to be walked is “den Hund.”  Once you have grasped this distinction in another language, you can feel it in English even though it’s not marked.

We manage to make our meaning clear by word order, juxtaposition, and context, and the words not fixed in their particular role of the moment by case endings seem freer and more mobile, like Americans.  (Chinese, I’m told, has even less grammar and makes no time, case, or number changes in its words at all; they are simply strings of unaltered nouns and uninflected infinitives, modified only by their proximity to each other.  Can anyone confirm or correct this?  Randy?)

But there is at least one grammatical hole in English that gapes like a missing tooth.  You can tell it’s there because people have tried repeatedly to fill it.  None of the tries have attained to official status; they’re all dismissed as uneducated or slangy, regional or generational dialect.  Nonetheless, we keep using them, like temporary patches grown permanent, because we need to fill the hole.

That hole is the second person plural pronoun.

We’re supposed to say “you” when we mean one person and “you” when we mean a bunch of people, and damn it, that just doesn’t work.  So we’ve had:

yous(e) – Brooklyn

y’all –  South (“all y’all” for a really large group)

you guys – urban youth (applied to both genders)

Which of these do you think is the best solution?  (I think it’s “yous” — which simply pluralizes the pronoun by applying a universal rule.  Ironically, this is considered the most “uneducated”-sounding of the three.)  Should one of them be made official?  Do you have yet another, new candidate for English’s second person plural pronoun?  Or must we just keep on scraping by, stumbling into the hole?  It’s frustrating not to have a word there!



  1. I vote for continued scraping and stumbling, myself, especially given the alternatives. : )

    Comment by reader_iam — August 7, 2009 @ 10:59 pm | Reply

  2. RE: Chinese. You’re basically correct. There’s an extra character that is usually added to the verb character to indicate reference is to past action.

    Comment by Randy — August 8, 2009 @ 1:46 am | Reply

    • Oops. Not very clear. The character 了(“le”) is a universal an indication of past tense used after almost every verb in the language. See note 3. The character 过 (guo) is generally used as a suffix indicating something has been done at least once, as in “Have you ever gone to X?” “Yes I went.” (It serves as the ‘ever’ in the question.) The character 着 (zhe) following a verb usually indicates “in the act of of,” as in “I am washing the dishes.”

      Chinese grammar is pretty straightforward. There are a couple of exceptions to grammatical rules, but those are rare and usually indicative of centuries-old polite phrases of symbolic not real meaning. (Like our “How are you?” doesn’t usually mean the questioner really wants to know, a standard Chinese greeting, “Have you eaten yet?” uses “guo” not “le”. It is rude to say “No” as it then becomes the responsibility of the questioner to feed the answerer. I imagine using “guo” provides the psychological out, as everyone has eaten at least once in their life ;-)

      Comment by Randy — August 8, 2009 @ 2:30 am | Reply

  3. Speaking of “you guys,” I am SO TIRED of going to restaurants of both high and low caliber and being asked “How are you guys today?” “Would you guys like to order now?” and “Do you guys want anything else” (among other variations), particularly when one of “us guys” is a mature woman. It’s overly friendly and rude at the same time.

    Comment by Randy — August 8, 2009 @ 2:35 am | Reply

    • In tone, that sort of goes with “Thank you.” “No problem.”

      But there it is — the hole. Exposed by people’s awkward efforts to fill it.

      What would be a civilized plural for “you”? (“You folks” in certain parts of the country, you betcha.)

      Comment by amba12 — August 8, 2009 @ 3:38 am | Reply

  4. We have a civilized plural. It’s “you.” Sorry: I disagree with the premise. And I submit that my position is increasingly supported with every clunky alternative offered.

    Comment by reader_iam — August 8, 2009 @ 3:48 am | Reply

  5. It’s civilized, it’s correct, but it doesn’t quite do the job. That’s why it’s like an itch people keep scratching. I agree the alternatives are clunky, probably hopelessly so. But imagine speaking to a group of people, giving a commencement address, e.g. If I said “you” in that situation I would feel as if I was addressing each person in the audience individually — which is good. But if I wanted to emphasize addressing whole group, I’d probably say something like “all of you” or (if that was too lump-y) “many of you.” Maybe we have no choice but to dance around it that way. Holes inspire embroidery.

    Comment by amba12 — August 8, 2009 @ 3:55 am | Reply

  6. I mean–and I’m sorry, Annie, on one level, but still–what the hell? Why do you want a more delimiting root?

    It’s easy to solve what you seem to think is a problem:

    Specifically you
    you in particular
    you XXX [name]
    you XXX [category]
    you xxx [stereotype]
    you in general
    you generally speaking
    you all
    et cetera

    Modifiers are wonderful things, not least because they require something from those who must deploy them. Why the heck would you want to add yet another blind behind which to duck?

    OK, if you want the easy shorthand way to cope, here it is: Think of, as opposed to “I,” “you” as “the other” (itself one of those blurred singular/plural constructions). Then consider whether you’d really want to trade in the burden of a modifier in exchange for a firm “this is it.”


    Less wordy version: I think it’s excellent, our demanding “you.” It’s a feature, not a bug.

    Comment by reader_iam — August 8, 2009 @ 4:15 am | Reply

  7. reader, I’m pointing out that there are several locutions that are in fact attempts to invent a second person plural, to fill that hole, a felt hole one is also aware of if one (hi Blake!) has ever learned another language. I don’t actually think that it has to be filled. I’m observing language behavior more than I am trying to fix it. I am a bit paradoxical; I do have a touch of grammar OCD, but am not a grammar Nazi. I guess I didn’t make that very clear, what with inviting people, rhetorically, to fill the hole.

    But it has elicited some fascinating responses. For instance, yours that the ambiguous “you” is “a feature not a bug” — that’s extremely thought-provoking, philosophically, psychologically. Martin Buber’s I-Thou was written in German, where there is a delineated distinction; our translation thus changes the meaning in a really interesting way. Randy’s that “you guys” can be really inappropriate and annoying. Thanks, you . . . (“guys” and “all” fading away unvoiced)

    Comment by amba12 — August 8, 2009 @ 4:33 am | Reply

  8. OK. Fair enough, and I’ll back off (except to say you’re mistaken if you think all I’ve ever known about is English). Done.

    Comment by reader_iam — August 8, 2009 @ 5:24 am | Reply

  9. Didn’t mean to suggest that you were monolingual. Jeez. Putting my foot through the cucumber frames. Crash, crash.

    I’m trying to get at . . . this is a natural distinction we must miss because we keep trying, colloquially, to supply it. Yet correct English keeps rebuffing our attempts. Your inspiration is to take it as a challenge, a spur to consciousness of expression, as compensating for any disability — in this case the language’s — can lead to heights otherwise unsuspected, much less attained. Or as if it were a koan disguised as a disability.

    Comment by amba12 — August 8, 2009 @ 6:07 am | Reply

  10. Interestingly, in the SW region of PA (particularly along the Monongahela River), the common term for “all of you” was “you’ns” (you’ins? -ins?). At some point*, “you’ns” came to be replaced by the shorter “yins”. I first encountered this on a summer stay with the grandparents of a girlfriend from middle school, and have not returned or encountered it since. The family assured me at the time, though, that this was the common referent, & widely used in the region.

    Comment by emily — January 14, 2010 @ 6:18 am | Reply

    • Wow! I had never heard of that. Another one to add to my collection! Thanks, Emily!! It supports my point that in dialects, at least, this is a hole English speakers feel and struggle to fill. In some cases, perhaps it is a hole that was noticed by immigrants used to speaking languages that had a second person plural. This could certainly be true in Brooklyn and Pennsylvania. It doesn’t explain the American South’s “y’all,” however.

      Comment by amba12 — January 14, 2010 @ 7:05 am | Reply

  11. (Oops. Forgot the footnote.)

    * – I’m not sure when the change from “you’ns” to “yins” occured, or when the former entered common usage.

    Comment by emily — January 14, 2010 @ 6:23 am | Reply

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