“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.


On Kennings

July 4, 2012 Comments Off on On Kennings

I’ve recently been thinking of splitting infinitives on purpose in order to spite the establishment. It put me in mind of an annoying list an English teacher handed out once, with each item demonstrating the mistake or construction it was proscribing. (The famous example being, “It behooves us to avoid archaisms,” which still makes me mad, because (a) no, and (b) “behoove” is a perfectly good word.) Split infinitives aren’t actually on the list, but I was thinking about it anyway, and thought it might have said something like, “You should try to never split infinitives.” But that’s interesting, because it’s possible to create subtle differences in meaning with nothing more than deciding whether or not to split the infinitive. It’s because of the way I read. But I’ll get to that in a second. First we have to talk about kennings.

I took Old English for two semesters (the second semester consisting entirely of reading Beowulf), and I came to adore the language. It’s like if you took all the stuff that’s awesome about German and (the German side of) English and boiled it for hours with onions and bay leaves until you were left with a thick, incredibly rich and delicious version that takes up much less space but has ten times the flavor. Except obviously it’s the other way around: English started rich and delicious and became gradually diluted over time, notably with French. But that is neither here nor there. The important thing was that I became acquainted with kennings. This is the rather Germanic practice of making a word by melding two unrelated words, such as hron-rād (lit. “whale-road”) for sea or weorðmyndum (lit. “worth of mind”) for honor. It is unspeakably cool and adds immensely to the text.

Last summer I took an ASL class, which is also full of kennings, although usually much less poetic. There is only one sign for “don’t-know,” for example. And this is what made me finally realize that I read in kennings—because really, “don’t-know” is one concept…or at least it’s possible to see it that way. So when an infinitive is split, rather than considering it split, I consider it to be an entirely new infinitive. It might be the best thing about being a fast reader. When you gulp down the text instead of chewing it carefully, it tastes different.

For example, consider “I try to not be so annoying” vs. “I try not to be so annoying.” There is a difference so subtle I can’t even articulate it…or rather, I won’t. If I achieve precision in describing the difference I won’t be able to see it anymore. For a long time I assumed that this meant I was making up differences where there weren’t any, but I eventually reached the conclusion that it’s kind of Heisenbergian. There are some things in this world you can’t know everything about. So maybe the difference between me and someone who can’t see the difference between the above sentences is that one of us intuits the meaning and concentrates on the flavor, while the other concentrates on the meaning and trusts that he will absorb the flavor with it. Obviously I’m biased in favor of the former, but that’s because I’m more interested in the particle’s velocity than its position. It’s all in what you want to get out of it.

Yum, kennings. Yum, infinitives. Tasty tasty grammar.

Good Word Stuff

September 15, 2011 Comments Off on Good Word Stuff

While considering kitten names, we started listing synonyms for “fearless.” One possibility is “intrepid,” and I finally realized the etymology! In- as in “not,” and trepid as in “trepidation.” Good to realize! I love etymological breakthroughs.

Here’s another: words relating to umbrella! First of all, “umbrella” is related to “penumbra” and the French word for shadows, “ombre.” Cool. The French word for “umbrella” is parapluie. Now, the French word for “windshield” is pare-brise, which means parry-breeze or break-breeze. So maybe a para-pluie breaks rain? And THEN perhaps a para-sol breaks sun? Or maybe it’s only for sun. Either way! MAN, language is cool.

A Point of Clarification

July 22, 2011 Comments Off on A Point of Clarification

As my dearest brother Hadrian has reminded me, there is a difference between letting bad grammar slide and letting bad vocab slide. Therefore I must clarify: I am now going easy on grammar. I AM NOT and never will be going easy on misunderstandings of perfectly good words. Language is elastic and ever-evolving and so on but that’s not an excuse for using whatever word you feel like in hopes that, since it sounds sort of like a word you think you know, it is the correct choice. The case in point is “bemused,” which many people think means “slightly amused” but actually means “nonplussed, perplexed.” English is a beautiful rich language and it is my sworn duty to uphold and protect its lovely vocabulary, lest the people who think “belligerent” means “really drunk” succeed in tearing it down. I have spoken.

And Hadrian has succeeded in provoking me, of course, but this was important. I shake my fist at thee, sirrah!

Death of a Grammar Nazi

July 22, 2011 Comments Off on Death of a Grammar Nazi

I hereby officially renounce my status as a grammar nazi. I’m not saying I don’t still care deeply about spelling and commas, but a combination of factors has led me to conclude that grammar just isn’t worth stressing out over. Of course, it’s still extremely important for public documents because if all your grammar and spelling is correct, it removes the possibility that you are a complete moron (at least you knew enough to have someone proofread it for you) and shows that you care about presenting a good image to your customers (or constituents, or advisors, or employers, or whatever). But in general, live and let live, eh?

Part of this is a holdover from my Wisconsin Englishes dialect discrimination brainwashing (see Spider-Burp Juice and Standard English), which primed me to go easy on anything I can understand—and even a few things I can’t. If a friend is writing you an email and they don’t take the trouble to look up how to spell “definitely,” that’s okay. As long as they’re not going to put it up on a billboard, who cares? You know what they mean. (Although that’s a bad example because misspelling “definitely” is a pet peeve of mine. Not that hard, people.)

Part of it is coming to terms with my own grammatical failings. I generally correct everything before I say, write, or type it, but, for example, I’ve realized that every time I use the past participle of “take” I have to suppress an urge to say “tooken.” And recently I’ve been listening to Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), who says you should just sit down every day and write fast without stopping, without correcting, without crossing out, and without worrying about legibility. The first time I tried this, I ended up writing in huge convulsive scrawls across the page; I found myself breathing hard, eyes wide, hyperfocused, and when I’d finished I was totally stoned. It completely altered my head at the time, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve tried it again a couple times, especially now that I’m reading/following The Artist’s Way, and it’s made me very relaxed about spelling. I make surprising mistakes—surprising mostly in that they’re consistent: I write too many of a repeated letter, I dyslexize the last two letters of a word, and if a word ends in the same letter that begins the following word, I never write the letter twice. And if I, Queen Speller of the World (ha), am comfortable with writing the kind of crazy-ass words I’ve been writing, then everyone else really needs to chill the fuck out.

Another anti-grammar-nazism influence was literary license. As I’ve been trying to get my proofreading business going, I’ve realized just how much of my own writing is technically incorrect. I use a lot of literary license to control the pace and tone of my writing, which is a good thing. But it involves from time to time using a comma splice, or writing sentence fragments or run-ons, or using unorthodox capitalization. And all this is okay. But it made me realize that there is essentially no correlation between quality of grammar and quality of writing. They’re completely separate, and, in the end, I care more about writing than I do about grammar. So there. Plus, I can still feel smug about certain things: for example, I know that ending a sentence with a preposition is completely acceptable. (Did anyone cringe at the sentence “Grammar just isn’t worth stressing out over”?) English has a grammatical feature called “preposition stranding.” Totally legal. Deal with it. It’s also okay to split infinitives—it’s just that people were worrying that English wasn’t enough like Latin, the perfect language. Trouble is, Latin’s infinitives are only one word, so the conclusion that English two-word infinitives couldn’t be split because you can’t do it in Latin is flawed.

And finally, I guess I just finally got confident enough with my writing to realize that I don’t need perfect grammar to prop up my self-esteem. I write well, even if some of it is technically wrong…but if I write well, who cares? It’s really fun and a source of great pride to know a language inside and out because it’s valuable knowledge and difficult to acquire—take it from someone who has taken stabs at learning seven or eight languages—but it’s just too mean-spirited to judge people for not taking pleasure in the minutiae of English grammar. Even though I find it difficult to understand why you wouldn’t.

Experimental Punctuation

July 5, 2011 Comments Off on Experimental Punctuation

I have been seduced by the dark side—by which I mean, British punctuation. It started with Mr and Mrs and so on. I understand that the periods are there because they are abbreviations, except not anymore, kind of. Who’s actually going to write out “Missus Johnson”? Is that even how you spell it? Occasionally you see “Mister,” but it looks weird. It looks like something off a Bazooka Joe wrapper. And what about Ms? That doesn’t even stand for anything! So. I move we lose the period. It makes a sentence look cleaner. Periods come mostly at the ends of sentences. I may eventually come to vote against even the periods in e.g., i.e., and &c. …but not yet.

But recently I’ve gotten interested in the British conventions involving quotation marks. We already have the rules about question marks, as above when I wrote “Missus Johnson”? instead of “Missus Johnson?” And I’ve started doing it with colons and semicolons, although so far I think I draw the line at commas, because it looks cleaner. So I’m experimenting with British punctuation, in much the same way that a teenager might experiment with hair colors, you know, to try to find a (punctuational) identity.

So…notice anything different about me?

Lessons from Mandeville

June 8, 2011 Comments Off on Lessons from Mandeville

“How can you read that?” Simon asked me recently, as I was busy with my printed-out copy of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Actually, I like it a lot. Consider the following quote:

And wit well, that the realm of Arabia is a full great country, but therein is over-much desert. And no man may dwell there in that desert for default of water, for that land is all gravelly and full of sand. And it is dry and no thing fruitful, because that it hath no moisture; and therefore is there so much desert.

Don’t you like that? There’s just something so pleasing to me about the way that’s put. Anyway. I’m thoroughly enjoying the read, not least because the old language keeps triggering etymological breakthroughs. I’ve got two good ones so far.

“And then go men by desert unto the vale of Elim […] And from that valley is but a good journey to the Mount of Sinai.” A good journey. The whole book is about a journey, and I puzzled over this for a minute until I realized that “journey” must be related to the French “jour” (“day”)—so “journey” means a day’s worth of traveling! COOL.

“And at Fagamost is one of the principal havens of the sea that is in the world; and there arrive Christians and Saracens and men of all nations.” The German word Hafen means harbor, and suddenly I realized that “haven” must have originally meant harbor, too, and all that has survived is its figurative meaning.

Awesome, right? What I really like about these examples is that one comes from Latin and the other from German. I always like connecting English to its roots.

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