“You Guys” Is Gender-Neutral

April 12, 2016 Comments Off on “You Guys” Is Gender-Neutral

Did you know there are two ups in English? It’s true! Watch, I’ll show you. You can say “I walked up the stairs” but you can’t say “I walked the stairs up” because this up is a preposition and English prepositions don’t work that way. On the other hand, you can say “I looked up the information” and you can ALSO say “I looked the information up” because this up is a particle and English particles do work that way even though most of us have never heard of them.

Descriptive linguistics is the reason we know this: The starting assumption is that anyone who is a native speaker of a dialect has an inherent understanding of its grammatical rules even if they can’t put into words why something is right or wrong. If you are a native English speaker, then the sentence “I walked the stairs up” made you do a weird mental double-take even if you have never heard of a particle. Linguists’ job is to figure out why something is right, not to figure out what should be right. (That’s called prescriptive linguistics and it is largely evil.)

What’s cool about this is that it works for any dialect that people speak natively, even so-called “uneducated” ones. The sentence “He shop here all the time” is not grammatical in my native dialect but is grammatical in others. I love this because it’s a radically democratic way of approaching the world, and I get all mama-bear when people start talking about wrongness in language. Once you’re judging people’s language as wrong it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to judging people as wrong, which is where so much of the awfulness in the world comes from. There is Standard English and then there’s Chicano English and African American Vernacular English and so on and they are all equally valid dialects. It also hits home because, as I have written before, Wisconsinites’ inability to accept the word “pop” caused me a disproportionate amount of stress in college. Similarly, I’ve tried saying “You should come with” (complete sentence) and “Where are you at?” and have had the same icky feeling I get when I try to say “soda.” It feels weird. It’s not me.

Now I’m an educator. More than that: I’m a women’s self-defense instructor. And it has been on my radar for about a decade that there are a lot of people out there who consider the phrase “you guys” to be sexist, and advise speakers to remove it from their vocabulary. My own training involved some pretty tight attention to language and I am all in favor of watching your words. But in this instance, it’s misguided.

English doesn’t have gendered second-person pronouns. “You” is still super-safe even in what my Facebook world perceives as the currently ongoing gender-binary-destructive maelstrom; you might not know where on the gender spectrum the person in front of you places himself, or what pronouns she uses, or how hard ze’s going to kick your ass for making assumptions about either of those things, but at least you can look them straight in the eye and say, “How may I help you?” That part has always been worry-free, and it will stay that way because English doesn’t have gendered second-person pronouns.

On the other hand, most of us have always had problems with plain “you” as our plural second-person pronoun. It happens to sound the same as the singular “you,” and we want to be clear, so the majority of us have a fall-back method of clarifying.

You probably read about the Harvard dialect survey that went viral in 2013. The goal was a geographical survey of organic native dialects, expressions that sound just as right to their native speakers as “I walked up the stairs” does to us. (The variety of American English is fantastic! You should check the questions out.) Their question about a term “to address a group of two or more people” listed the following options:

  • you all
  • yous/youse
  • you lot
  • you guys
  • you ‘uns
  • yins
  • you
  • other
  • y’all

That’s quite a list! And 42.53% of respondents picked “you guys.” (Side note: I would bet anything that the majority of the 24.82% who said “you” picked that option because it was correct and they knew they weren’t supposed to say y’all or yins. I showed this survey to one friend who was proud that he had “picked all the right answers.” *headdesk*)

Notice that the question was ungendered. Those 4,578 people picked “you guys” out of a list of other second-person plural pronouns, which, again, are not gendered in English.

The idea of taking “you guys” out of my vocabulary entirely gives me the same panicked, tight feeling in my throat that I have every time I try to suggest that someone “come with.” It doesn’t feel right. That is not the language I speak. With my inherent understanding of my native dialect of English, I can tell you with certainty that “you guys” is gender-neutral. I think most people sense this same thing, except that without the linguistic background to argue for it, you feel like you don’t have a leg to stand on if someone calls you out on it.

And let me clarify that this isn’t the same thing as changing your vocabulary. Terms change all the time, but they don’t affect the grammar of your dialect. It doesn’t matter if I ask you “Where are the fireflies at?” or “Where are the peenie wallies at?”—if “where…at” isn’t grammatical in your dialect, neither one is going to sound right. (Yes, peenie wallies! Seriously, take a look at some of those questions. Language rocks!)

The problem is that “you guys” happens to look and sound a lot like a phrase that you could conceivably use to address a group of men. Just like the preposition “up” looks and sounds a lot like the particle “up.” Just like singular “you” looks and sounds a lot like plural “you.”

Women in the 1970s re-branded feminist history as “herstory.” Of course, “history” derives from Ancient Greek and doesn’t bear any relationship whatsoever to the Modern English pronoun “his”—it was just a linguistic coincidence. That didn’t mean you shouldn’t say “herstory” if it meant something to you or was important for your own growth as a feminist… but seriously proposing that it be widely adopted was ludicrous.

The fact that “you guys” appears to be gendered is a similar linguistic coincidence. And in the same way, you are welcome to eliminate it from your language if it is important to you. But a solid understanding of descriptive linguistics, and why it is critically important not to cast other dialects as vulgar or uneducated, suggests why it isn’t right to advocate for its wholesale removal.


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