Party game

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Today's SMBC:

Mouseover text: "I actually only made this so nobody will ever invite me to a party again."

The aftercomic:

Unfortunately, this comic's argument is factually incorrect. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, and the development of "singular you" occurred more than a century earlier. As discussed in "George Fox, Prescriptivist", 10/24/2010, Fox's Epistle 191, published in 1660, was already carrying on about the collapse of second-person number distinctions, so that people fail "to divide and distinguish singular from plural, many things from one thing, and one from two and three; and many man and women from one, and the many words from one, and the many gods from one, and the true Christ from the many antichrists and false." And in "That false and senseless Way of Speaking", 1/1/2016, I quoted from a 1659 rant:

Again, The Corrupt and Unfound Form of Speaking in the Plural Number to a Single Person (Y O U to One, instead of T H O U ;) contrary to the Pure, Plain and Single Language of T R U T H T H O U to One, and Y O U to more than One) which had always been used, by G O D to Men, and Men to G O D, as well as one to another, from the oldest Record of Time, till Corrupt Men, for Corrupt Ends, in later and Corrupt Times, to Flatter, Fawn, and work upon the Corrupt Nature in Men, brought in that false and senseless Way of Speaking, Y O U to One ; which hath since corrupted the Modern Languages, and hath greatly debased the Spirits, and depraved the Manners of Men. This Evil Custom I had been as forward in as others and this I was now called out of, and required to cease from.

Of course this just means that the arrow of causality goes in the other direction — it's not classical liberalism that caused "singular you", but rather the other way around :-)…



  1. Robot Therapist said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 2:56 pm

    Which, if I understand it, would fit Sapir-Whorf even better.

    [(myl) Indeed.]

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 5:00 pm

    But just because you had come to be used for polite or formal address to a single individual by the mid-17th century, that doesn't mean that thou had fallen out of use. Fox notes that this habit "hath corrupted the Modern Languages", and indeed, quite a few European languages had by then started using the 2nd person plural form to address single individuals in formal (polite, high-status, etc.) contexts without ever losing the distinction between 2nd singular and 2nd plural in more informal or familiar contexts. French and Greek (and probably others) maintain that system to this day. The thing that English did that was weird (although Dutch and Brazilian Portuguese have done something similar) was losing the original 2nd singular form altogether. I don't know when that happened, but it might well have been a generation after Adam Smith's heyday, as the comic says. Perhaps one of the many readers who know more about the history of English can shed some light on this.

    [(myl) According to this poster:

    During the 16th century the use of the singular thou had already been reduced to a few marked contexts: a husband addressing his wife (Puritanism), a superior talking to a person of very low rank, and the use as singular of contempt (especially during trials at court).
    According to Finkenstaedt 1963: 223 no formal reasons of the language were responsible for the complete loss of thou, but changes in the society of the 17th century:

    • Severe conflict with the Quakers about use of thou was a contributing factor, people tried not to use thou in fear of being mistaken for a Quaker
    • Strong influence of the philosopher John Locke who believed in tolerance and the equality of all people → fundamental respect for the individual forbade use of condescending language (e.g. singular thou)
    • Position of woman in marriage started changing, puritan ideals lost importance → loss of thou in marriage

    The reference is to Finkenstaedt, Thomas. You und thou: Studien zur Anrede im Englischen.(Mit einem Exkurs über die Anrede im Deutschen). Vol. 10. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 1963.]

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 5:12 pm

    Obviously there was dialectal variation: but I think in standard London speech it had been accomplished by 1776.

    In any case I'm not sure that comic was very concerned with factual accuracy.

    k_over_hbarc at

  4. Twill said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 6:08 pm

    It is worth noting, though, that thou persisted beyond Adam Smith's time in his own country (Robert Burns' reply to a critic [is instructive]( ), and that the force that killed the usage, the stigmatization of Scots in favor of a "Scottish English" sanitized of most scotticisms, really took off in Smith's time, and he contributed to it personally. Naturally any link to Smith's economic theories and language change in Scotland in the late 18th century would be tenuous at best, but he was probably not entirely removed from the death of the second-person singular pronouns.

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 6:47 pm

    Burns's use there clearly could be conscious archaism, employed for effect; in any case I would dispute that 'thou' could ever have been called a 'Scotticism' (and I had never heard its being associated with Scotland, though it once existed there as it did everywhere else English was spoken).

    [Today I think that kind of use would be seen more as literary than archaic; but for Burns I don't know that 'thou' was so far removed from common speech as to force that suggestion.]

  6. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 6:49 pm

    Spanish did something even weirder. It invented a brand new second person singular pronoun out of the second person plural pronoun. "Your Grace" (vuestra [fam,pl] merced) became "you" (usted) [form, sing] while virtually losing the familiar plural pronouns and conjugations in common speech.

  7. Twill said,

    July 1, 2020 @ 11:03 pm

    @Andrew Usher Thou was too widespread to be very markedly a scotticism, but it was certainly a regionalism in non-literary contexts from its extinction in Southern England, and it's hard to see how the loss of that form would not primarily be attrition to the "Attic" standard. Thou survived in Scotland beyond the 18th century in informal speech, and without doing any serious investigation I note that e.g. Scott uses thou in informal dialogue.

  8. Tim Zee said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 1:15 am

    A distinct second person plural still exists in English and is in widespread use.

    I'm referring to the reflexive pronoun yourselves.

    Occasionally people will use it when it's not entirely necessary just to make sure that the plurality of their reference is understood.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 3:18 am

    'Youse' in parts of Scotland, 'Y'all' in parts of America, but I don't know how widespread any of them are.

    And they're all new creations to fill the gap – and I think 'y'all' is turning singular again.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 4:31 am

    I associate "youse" more with Tyneside than with Scotland, Jen, but that is almost certainly explained by our different locations. I also think that I have encountered it in Merseyside.

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 5:21 am

    @Thomas Hutcheson, IMO you've understated the complexity of the situation of Spanish by failing to say anything about vos, and in particular the dialects (most notably Uruguayan, IIRC) which use three second person singular pronouns: , vos, and usted.

    I'm unclear as to which pronouns you refer with

    while virtually losing the familiar plural pronouns and conjugations in common speech.

    Are you talking about vosotros/-as outside Spain or the original usage of vos as a plural (although I would think the latter to be formal)?

  12. David Marjanović said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 7:15 am

    Thou isn't extinct everywhere in English.

    Spanish […] virtually losing the familiar plural pronouns and conjugations in common speech

    You mean like vosotr@s estáis? That's alive & well in Spain, but gone from Latin America in favor of the polite ustedes están.

  13. Cervantes said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 7:16 am

    Er, the second person plural in Spanish is ustedes. It is used everywhere. The informal vosotros is not commonly used any more, although vuestra, the possessive, is used. Vos has become singular and it is a signal of high respect, more formal than usted, though sometimes used ironically.

  14. Joe said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 8:23 am

    @Jen in Edinburgh: Yall is pretty pervasive, specially in AAVE. And, according to this link, its etymology is Scottish.

  15. Mark P said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 9:26 am

    Y’all (y’all) used to be more common around here (NW Georgia, USA) but I hear it less often today. I never said it. For me it was and still is you all.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 9:48 am

    If one is to believe that Dorothy Sayers knew what she was talking about when she wrote Clouds of Witness, thou (rendered as tha to represent local pronunciation) was standard in Yorkshire dialect in the early 20th century.

    My memory, which is a strange ragbag of recollections, has held onto a complaint made to a Quaker in the 17th century, quoted in a textbook we used in 6th grade(!) when studying the history of William Penn: "Do you 'thou' me, dog? An thou thou'st me, I'll thou thy teeth down thy throat!"

  17. Wally said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    Of course growing up in Chicago we used “you guys “.

    As for y’all going singular, down here in Texas “all y’all” is sometimes used.

    Me, I like “y’all guys “.

  18. Mark P said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 11:18 am

    I heard some people claim that “you all”’is used in the singular in the South, but I have never heard it used that way.

  19. David L said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 12:28 pm

    thou (rendered as tha to represent local pronunciation) was standard in Yorkshire dialect in the early 20th century.

    Still widespread today, according to my brother in Derbyshire.

  20. David L said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 12:31 pm

    The comic seems wrong in another way. "You" was and still is second person plural, and has displaced the original second person singular. The fact that English has no true second person singular is why socialism is the norm in English-speaking countries.

  21. John Swindle said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 12:31 pm

    In Hawaii I've sometimes heard singular "you," plural "you guys" — and dual "you two." I've assumed it was Californian.

  22. cliff arroyo said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 12:54 pm

    "some people claim that “you all”’is used in the singular in the South"

    I think sometimes people misunderstand that you can use 'y'all' while speaking to one person as the representative of a group.

    Me (talking to a single member of band): Do y'all know when you'll be back?" here the "y'all" is about the band not the single member I was talking to.

  23. Mark P said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 12:57 pm

    @cliff arroyo— I think you’re right.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 2:40 pm

    Once upon a time, maybe 75 years ago, it was plausible to think that politically-active speakers of AmEng varieties with a distinctive second-person-plural form were generally aligned with each other and all disproportionately likely to vote for the (socialistic according to their adversaries) FDR-era Democrats, regardless of whether their particular form was y'all, yinz, or youse. But that political coalition subsequently fractured without its fracturing correlating particularly well to any shifts in dialect pronoun usage …

  25. Andrew Usher said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 6:37 pm

    Fine, thanks, I didn't question that. I only said that the Burns exmple was not a good one, as the same letter could be written today.

    "Singular y'all" is a perennial subject of debate; most Southerners claiming it's never used and is a Yankee myth or misperception. 'You guys' definitely has the widest reach in America is any of the innovative plurals; though Tim Zee was correct that even the standard language distinguishes in one case, the reflexive.

    The socialism thing must have been a joke.

    About the Yorkshire thing: Yes, a part of northern England has had a remarkably persisent 'thou', now pronounced like the definite article with no vowel. As I understand it, the possessive is also 'tha', but the accusative is still 'thee'.

  26. Bob Michael said,

    July 2, 2020 @ 11:06 pm

    As a lifelong resident of the Southern US, I have *never* heard y’all used as a singular pronoun. If you think you hear it that way, you’re misunderstanding what the speaker is saying. Asking one person “how are y’all doing” means they’re asking how you and yours, your family, are doing.

    Only in bad TV fake Southern accents.

  27. Bob Ladd said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 2:30 am

    Northerners skeptical of what Bob Michael said may find these examples convincing:

    One customer and one shop assistant in a small shop:
    Cust: “Have you got self-adhesive labels?”
    Asst: “Sorry, we don’t sell them.”

    One passer-by and one person waiting at a bus stop:
    P-B: “Have you got the time?”
    Person waiting: “Sorry, we haven’t got a watch.”

    In both cases a single speaker is using “we”. In the first case it’s obvious that “we” refers to the speaker and the other people (not present) involved in running the shop. In the second case the only available inference is that the person waiting at the bus stop is a little peculiar. These inferences are practically automatic – and Southerners brought up with “y’all” automatically make inferences analogous to the first case whenever a single individual is addressed with “y’all”. Northerners are in the position of someone who would find both the person at the bus stop and the shop assistant a little peculiar.

  28. etv13 said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 4:22 am

    Hamlet consistently calls his mother "you" and Horatio "thou." I don't think Horatio is meant to be taken of particularly low rank. Horatio calls Hamlet "you" and "my lord."

    Juliet says something like "and follow thee my lord through all the world."

    Rosalind's uncle calls her "thou" and "you" in close proximity.

    There's a fair amount of "thou" in Tom Jones and Evelina.

  29. Robert Coren said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 10:30 am

    And then there's the oddity that among the US Quakers, thee took over the nominative role, with third-person-singular verb forms.

  30. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 11:30 am

    I still use y'all (46 year old male in Atlanta) and I also hear it used by most people of most ages who are natives and often among transplants as well.

    However, I have never heard it used as singular. except by fictional characters.
    Maybe this is different on other places or contexts, but I have always regarded that usage as an incorrect interpretation by non-"y'all" users. The stereotypical Southern waitress who says "Y'all want some pie?" to the customer in a diner is not really how it is ever used (in my experience)

  31. Paul Turpin said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 11:41 am

    In Cork and elsewhere in Ireland it's common to hear Ye as the plural of you, as in “How are ye?". Up Dublin way youse is used.

  32. stephen said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 1:26 pm

    In the Star Trek episode "Amok Time", Kirk, Spock and McCoy visit Spock's home planet Vulcan and meet a matriarch, T'Pau, She's introduced to Kirk, turns to McCoy and says, "And thee are called?" She uses the pronoun thee again later. It's used to make her seem antique.

    I feel like mentioning another pronoun oddity, they're waiting for Spock's fiancee/wife, T'Pring.
    McCoy says, I wonder when his T'Pring arrives?"
    HIS T'Pring? I thought that was strange.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 1:49 pm

    Ignoring the "T'Pring" element, I agree that "his <wife's name> sounds and feels odd, but "How's your Doreen doing ?" sounds perfectly natural to me, although of course very informal. So I think one might reasonably also ask "What's his Doreen (or T'Pring) been up to, then ?".

  34. Narmitaj said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 2:21 pm

    I have a memory of my great aunts saying "thee" and "thou", and my mother confirms they said it to each other, not out in public. They were Quakers; the two I met (out of four) were born around 1890, died 1965 and 1970.

    They were born in Birmingham and died in Somerset, but they had a Yorkshire connection. Their father and uncle taught for 30 years between them at Bootham, a York Quaker school for boys, in the late 19thC. Two of the great aunts taught (and one was headmistress) at The Mount, a York Quaker school for girls that is alma mater of actors Judi Dench & Mary Ure, novelists AS Byatt & her sister Margaret Drabble, and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell – though all attended well after my aunts stopped working there.

    I never met the one who was headmistress, 1926-1940; she was nicknamed Koko and had a wooden leg.

    On the Yorkshire dialect, there's "On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at", the "unofficial anthem of Yorkshire"

    Some example lyrics (repetitions removed):

    Wheear 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
    On Ilkla Mooar baht 'at
    Tha's been a cooartin' Mary Jane
    Tha's bahn' to catch thy deeath o' cowd

    (Where have you been since I saw you? On Ilkley Moor without a hat. You've been courting Mary Jane. You're bound to catch your death of cold.)

  35. David Marjanović said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 2:29 pm

    Hamlet consistently calls his mother "you" and Horatio "thou." I don't think Horatio is meant to be taken of particularly low rank. Horatio calls Hamlet "you" and "my lord."

    That's the next earlier stage, when thou was the default and only persons of particularly high relative rank were addressed in the plural (Hamlet's mother is the queen, and her son evidently respects that).

  36. Andrew Usher said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 6:38 pm

    Paul Turpin:
    'Ye' (with long vowel) was the original form of the pronoun, and it's possible has survived in such usages, as to my knowledge only the form 'you' was ever transferred to the singular. Why the nominative and accusative forms got mixed up for only this pronoun I do not know. ('It' never had separate forms, following the IE rule for the neuter, which Germanic kept in the singular only.)

    (And of course I should have said the definite article has a reduced vowel, not 'no vowel', at least in the standard it's never elided.)

  37. Joyce Melton said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 6:45 pm

    Many Southerners and Texans will deny that "yall" is used singly.

    It is. Mostly in places where courtesy and politeness are required.

    I'm from Arkansas by way of California. To me, yall is almost always plural. I walked into a department store in West Texas and the salesclerk asked me, "Can I help yall?" I looked around to see who came in with me but I was alone.

  38. Chas Belov said,

    July 3, 2020 @ 9:41 pm

    As a former Pittsburgher, I use "yinz" and am comfortable using "you all," but only for plural.

    I'd like to see "we" for exclusive 1st person plural and "we all" for inclusive 1st person plural but it's probably not going to happen in my lifetime.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 5:25 am

    I find that idea interesting, Chas, in that I will instinctively use 咱们 (zámen) as opposed to 我们 (wǒmen) to indicate inclusivity when speaking Chinese, yet never once have I felt the need to make the same distinction in English. For the second person plural, on the other hand, I feel a great need, and routinely write "you (plural)" when using both "To: " and "Cc: " in an e-mail. Bare "you" is addressed only to the member(s) of the "To: " set, "you (plural)" to both the "To: " set and the "Cc: " set.

  40. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 9:58 am

    The Hawaiian usage @John Swindle
    The usage in Hawaiian English [singular "you," plural "you guys" — and dual "you two] is probably a reflection of native Hawaiian which distinguishes singular, dual, and plural (more than 2) — not to mention inclusive and exclusive 1st persons (I and you ~ I and he, but not you)

  41. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 3:04 pm

    Bob Ladd: You don't really need the different settings – if you asked the shop assistant the time and were told 'we don't have a watch' you would still find it odd; if you asked the waiting person if the bus had gone past and were told 'we've only been here a minute or two', you would guess that a second person had just popped into a shop or similar (until proved otherwise…). It must be a peculiarity of watches!

    There are parts of England, I think, where it's normal to say 'us' and mean 'me', but it's foreign enough to me that I can't come up with an example. And I don't think you can swap 'we' and 'I'.

  42. Philip Taylor said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 8:36 pm

    Even in the (fairly conservative, linguistically speaking) south of England, "can you give us a hand, please ?" is by no means uncommon when the speaker is referring only to himself as "us". And of course an "I"/"We" swap is fully attested in the sense of the "royal We", as in "We are not amused".

  43. Ioanna said,

    July 4, 2020 @ 10:24 pm

    Plural "Y'all" is increasingly adopted by people who want to avoid the gendered "You guys." I use a singular "y'all" sometimes–I guess in instances where I want to be both affectionate and respectful with someone I'm not close to.

    I use we/us for myself sometimes. I would say "Pour us a glass of water" to a partner, but I would never say it to a waiter–it would feel disrespectful.

  44. Paul Turpin said,

    July 5, 2020 @ 4:23 am

    Philip Taylor reminds me of a phrase from the '80s telly drama Boys from the Blackstuff, one of them, Yosser Hughes, went around Liverpool saying "Gissa job" to anyone he came across who was working.

  45. George said,

    July 6, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

    Second person plural in Ireland is commonly 'ye', with 'youse' in the north (including Donegal, which is the most northerly county despite being in the 'South') and working class Dublin. Where I live, in Clare (south-west), the you/ye distinction is almost universal, regardless of social or educational background. I'm an urban middle class blow-in, so I don't make the distinction and am unlikely to adopt it at this stage of my life but my wife, who is French, increasingly does.

  46. Andrew Usher said,

    July 6, 2020 @ 10:14 pm

    It would be helpful to non-Irish to indicate whether 'ye' has the full vowel or schwa. If the latter, it could be a reduction of 'you', and the same is informally spelled 'ya' in other places. If always a full vowel, it should be a conservative feature as I speculated.

  47. Rodger C said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 9:23 am

    "Ye" in Appalachian speech, with tense vowel, is, I'm pretty sure, a reduction of "you."

  48. George said,

    July 7, 2020 @ 5:18 pm

    @Andrew Usher

    Apologies, I should have been clearer. I have no idea how to get the phonetic alphabet on my phone but 'ye' in this instance rhymes with 'fee' or 'tea'. Definitely not a schwa.

  49. Philip Taylor said,

    July 11, 2020 @ 9:00 am

    George, would you agree that in some Irish dialects, IPA /i/ can move towards /ɪ/ ? It seems to me that what I have often heard in Ireland (but I could not say in which parts) is closer to /wʊd jɪ bɪ ˈhæv ən/ than /wʊd ji bi ˈhæv ɪŋ/.

  50. Alon Lischinsky said,

    July 15, 2020 @ 8:49 am


    Er, the second person plural in Spanish is ustedes. It is used everywhere. The informal vosotros is not commonly used any more, although vuestra, the possessive, is used. Vos has become singular and it is a signal of high respect, more formal than usted, though sometimes used ironically.

    Er, speak for your dialect, but don't try to make blanket assertions that will not fit the reality of Spanish. Vosotr*s is alive and well in the Iberian Peninsula, and the use of vos you describe may be true in your area, but is entirely unlike what happens in Argentina, Uruguay or Costa Rica.

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