English vocative pronouns

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On my to-blog list since last month:


Since this is Language Log and not Politicized Drug Efficacy Evaluation Log, the point at issue is the use of "y'all".

And I wasn't struck mainly by the sociolinguistic point — though it's interesting that the person running the FDA's twitter account used a form that Wiktionary accurately describes as "heard primarily in the Southern United States, and nationwide in AAVE". (And maybe the FDA's use is support for Wiktionary's observation that "Recently, the form has begun to be used by other American English speakers as well, though still less commonly than you guys".)

The thing is, for non-y'all-users like me, "you" can be either singular or plural, as every dictionary will tell you — but it can't be used (by itself) as a (plural) vocative. So the following non-y'all version of the FDA tweet is flat-out ungrammatical, at least for me:

*You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, you. Stop it.

Other explicitly plural second-person forms are fine, where "you" is post-modified by plural forms like "you guys", "you people", "you folks", "you idiots", or whatever.

Of course, English vocatives don't need to be plural — singular names always work, and with various degrees of formality, things like "sir", "ma'am", "miss", "man", "son", etc., are also fine. And singular "you" as a vocative is also (at least sometimes) OK, e.g.

Come here, you!

So what's wrong with plural vocative "you"?

And what about other dialectal variants like "yinz", "youz", "ye", etc.?


I was reminded of the FDA's "y'all" tweet the other day, when the radio (Johnny Meister's Blues Show, specifically) played an (as yet unreleased) 1977 version of Sonny Rhodes' song "It won't rain in California", where he interpolated "y'all" in various places, like

It just won't rain in California (y'all), seem like the sky don't want to cry.
It just won't rain in California (y'all), seem like the sky don't want to cry.
You know it's got a lot of people worried, cause they don't know the reason why.

Again, substituting "you" for "y'all" seems totally infelicitous — and not only because the audience is implicitly plural.

[The version on YouTube, from which that clip comes, is a later studio recording. I'll replace it with a clip from the 1977 version when my CD arrives…]

Update — here's the first verse from the 1977 version:



37 Comments »

  1. Yerushalmi said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 7:26 am

    There's a joke about the NYC-area "yous guys" somewhere in there.

  2. Yerushalmi said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 7:27 am

    Dammit, I got ninja'd by your edit.

  3. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 7:29 am

    I think your example of singular you would also work as a plural. “Come here, you” could be spoken to a group of people. I’d suggest that the problem with “Seriously, you” isn’t that it’s ungrammatical,. It’s that the tone is wrong. It sounds admonitory or dismissive, like “Seriously, you people.” It’s an insulting way to say it. But somehow “y’all” or “you guys” softens the tone, puts the speaker and the audience on the same level.

    [(myl) You might be right. The singular vocative "you" does seem generally impolite — in a friendly context I'd never say "What's up, you?" to an individual (though "man" etc. would be fine).

    And I think I'd have to say "Come here, you people" or "Come here, you guys" or something like that, for a plural reference. ]

  4. Timothy Rowe said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 7:47 am

    The Liverpool (Scouse) dialect version for plural you (including vocative) is "youse". In one of his books, humourist Stan Kelley-Bootle observed that if a schoolteacher in Liverpool said "Stand up, Hughes", the whole class would be likely to stand. In a later book he lamented that discipline had declined to the point that by then *nobody* would stand.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 8:02 am

    And in various parts (both geographical and social) of the UK there's "you lot" in exactly the meaning you're looking for.

  6. JOHN W BREWER said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    I don't think I can plausibly say "Come here, you"* in my idiolect, although I can easily imagine my maternal grandfather (1903-2003) saying it. Myl is older than me but a lot closer to my age than my grandfather's, so there may be geographical or other factors at play between our idiolects as well as generational ones. Because it sounds "off" to be in the singular, I can't really intuit whether it's *more* off in the plural.

    *Maybe not this exact phrasing. Precisely because it sounds impolite I can more easily picture granddad using this vocative formulation when addressing not a human being but e.g.. a recalcitrant piece of anthropomorphized machinery, so maybe saying "Come on, you" in an exasperated tone to a car engine failing to start on a cold winter morning.

    [(myl) Vocative (singular) "you" is certain restricted in some complicated ways — for me, it helps to point at the addressee, at least in the "Come here, you" case :-)… ]

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 8:10 am

    What struck me was the mismatch between evidently singular "you" in the first two sentences but plural "y'all" in the third.

    (It's grammatically possible that the first two sentences have plural "you", but pragmatically it's surely not the idea to suggest anyone may believe that a group of human beings somehow make up a single horse or cow.)

  8. Bloix said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 9:14 am

    "And I think I'd have to say "Come here, you people""

    Isn't the "you" redundant?
    A teacher or camp counselor – "Quiet down, people."
    Or, "Gather round, folks." "Listen up, everyone." Once you introduce the noun, what's the point of the pronoun?

  9. Bruce Rusk said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 9:22 am

    To interpret the situation charitably, I imagine the following situation: the speaker is addressing a group, and like a stand-up comic working the crowd singling out individuals and apostrophizing them: "You [pointing to Audience Member 1] are not a horse. You [pointing to Audience Member 2] are not a cow. Seriously, y'all [sweeping hand gesture to indicate the entire assembly]. Stop it." In that setting, the transition from you to y'all seems correct and meaningful to me.

  10. Bloix said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 9:34 am

    Andreas Johansson –
    It may not be strictly logical, but it's perfectly grammatical and intelligible to address a group of people with a statement that's intended to apply to each member of the group individually.

    A while back someone was complaining about the subway platform announcement, "Attention passengers. Please spread out along the platform and use all open doors."
    How could a passenger use all open doors, the commenter wanted to know.
    But this formulation causes no difficulty in comprehension and there's no obvious alternative. People seem to have no difficulty in conceiving of themselves as individuals and as members of a collective at the same time.

    And it's true that the collective does act as a group. On the subway platform, people do coordinate their actions so that all doors are utilized. And the FDA is asking people not merely to refrain as individuals from self-medicating with ivermectin, but also to stop encouraging each other and spreading misinformation by word of mouth or through social media. So the mixture of singular and plural in these formulations is not a mistake.

  11. david said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 10:10 am

    What's wrong with "y'all" or "you all" if you want to be formal?

    The basic problem is the lack of a separate second person singular pronoun caused by the suppression of the "thee" pronoun.

    There may also be a secondary prejudice against the groups of people who are comfortable with "y'all".

  12. R. Fenwick said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 10:54 am

    @Bloix: Isn't the "you" redundant?

    Apart from the fact that language is often gloriously illogical for little to no synchronic reason whatsoever, there are several perfectly plausible drivers of this type of construction.

    Once you introduce the noun, what's the point of the pronoun?

    But in typical speech the pronoun comes first, so the idea of what happens "once you introduce the noun" is entirely moot, because by the time you introduce the noun the pronoun has already been uttered. The noun serves as an appositional modifier appended for disambiguating purposes (as two people named Melissa might be disambiguated as "Melissa the artist" and "Melissa the physicist"), and often doesn't carry much functional semantic load, serving more as a dummy noun to introduce an overt signal of plurality that's absent from the pronoun. The use of you X in vocatives is parallel to its use in non-vocatives (You people need to listen, I've never seen you folks here before, etc.), and perhaps the vocative use of you X complexes is even further reinforced by the ability to use you as an emphatic vocative marker all on its own, as the original post notes.

    More, appositive pronoun complexes exist where omission of you is outright forbidden. For instance, Listen, you lot! vs. *Listen, lot!

  13. cliff arroyo said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 10:56 am

    My interpretation (as a decades long user of plural 'yall who does not believe in singular y'all usage).

    "You-x are not a horse.
    You-y are not a cow.
    Seriously, y'all (x, y, others). Stop it."

    That is, the first two 'you's are addressed to different individuals and 'y'all' is addressed to all ivermectin users (and would be users).

  14. Haamu said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 12:57 pm

    I'm with Bloix on this. The y'all seems to be there to emphasize that this needs to be a group decision, not just an aggregate of individual ones.

    It appears the FDA felt the need to start in the singular and switch to the plural. Had the tweet been

    You are not horses. You are not cows. Seriously. Stop it.

    it would have been clear, but the version as given seems edgier, and not merely because of the apparent regional marking.

    This discussion has me wondering: Does a vocative always need to be 2nd person? I can imagine cases where a 1st-person vocative would be useful, both singular and plural, but it doesn't seem to be possible in English — we either need to resort to circumlocution or false duality (as when I address myself as "you"). I further imagine that some language somewhere has invented a 3rd-person vocative, and attempting to grasp how it would be used is an interesting mental exercise.

  15. Joe said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 1:23 pm

    In Geto Boys Yes Yes Yall Yall functions less like "You" and more like "everybody" or "everyone" – the way DJs engage the crowd.

  16. Mary Ellen Sandahl said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 2:50 pm

    My favorite RL example is from a years-ago segment of the old PBS News Hour program with Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. Lehrer had grown up in Kansas and Texas, and had a definite Southern tilt to his speech. He was IIRC moderating a discussion of something political with a couple of other people and said something like, "is that likely to happen, in y'all's opinion?"

  17. Michael said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 4:00 pm

    I think in my regional-speak (Northern USA, influenced by both coasts), the natural thing would be to say. "Seriously, all of you. Stop it." "Y'all," while regionally foreign, is certainly familiar enough to be understood. And "you" by itself definitely sounds rude/confusing (is it just addressing me or lots of people?)

  18. Terry K. said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 5:31 pm

    I interpret the "you" in "you are not a horse", said when speaking to a group, as both singular and plural at the same time.

    If I think about saying it in Spanish (not a native language for me), neither singular or plural works. Singular usted or tú doesn't work, because I'm speaking to a group. And plural ustedes doesn't work with singular vaca (cow) or caballo (horse). But in English, for me, "you" works. I can address a group with "you" because it can be plural. And I can match it with "a cow" and "a horse" because it can be singular.

    In a sense, it's addressed to each individual listening, but at the same time, it wouldn't work for me to do that with a second person pronoun that's strictly singular.

  19. Michael Carasik said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 5:50 pm

    As someone who is inordinately annoyed by bad grammar and who uses "y'all" as the 2nd person plural in spoken language, the only thing that surprised me about this was such casual talk coming from a government agency. I guess that's a Twitter phenomenon.

    The first two sentences are addressed to each of a large group of individuals; the third, to the group as a whole. "Y'all are not horses" is weaker than "you are not a horse," but vocative singular "you" would be awkward and strange here. Nothing ungrammatical about this at all.

  20. Sarah C said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 5:51 pm

    As a native user of y'all who suppressed it for years due to (undeserved!) dialect stigma, I'm happy to see it in wider use. It strikes me as a variant of 'everybody' but not quite everybody–it's direct address but addressing a group so somewhat less accusatory. Like if you say "Y'all are getting kinda loud" to your upstairs neighbors, it's way less confrontational because it doesn't imply that any one person is particularly at fault. It also assumes a bit of familiarity with the speaker/reader–I know you and care about you but I don't approve of your off-label use of horse drugs.

    I'm curious whether singular vocative 'you' gets used that often in practice. If you know someone well enough to address them in the second person, wouldn't you use their actual name? Seriously, Mark. Possible explanation for its relative oddity?

  21. KeithB said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 6:53 pm

    Randall went with "you all"
    https://xkcd.com/2506/

  22. JPL said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 7:48 pm

    As several commenters have suggested, in the syntactic and discourse contexts given (the tweet and the blues song), an alternative expression closely equivalent in semantic intent would be "everybody" (etc.). Is "everybody" in that context a "vocative"? I don't know. But the semantic intent would involve "all-inclusiveness" wrt possible individual addressees, but also including the speaker in a more inclusive group, rather than suggesting a sometimes accusatory separation between speaker and addressees, so it is slightly different from "you lot" in that context. "Seriously, Angela. Cut it out." (cf., "Seriously, you. Cut it out.") Where does the sense of "you as opposed to me" (or "you not me") come from? It's not a necessary feature of "vocative" "you", as we can see in this great song sung by Betty Carter (Really, y'all, you should listen to this song all the way through):
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3OdxcbaDSM

  23. Jerry Packard said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 8:20 pm

    @R. Fenwick

    “…in typical speech the pronoun comes first…”

    In typical speech the noun usually comes first and the pronoun follows it. So, the pronoun is a deictic element in which the pronoun is the anaphor and the antecedent precedes it.

    It could be that ‘the noun serves as an appositional modifier appended for disambiguating purposes’, but it also seems like the normal (usually morphological) marking (suffixing) the pronoun as plural (y’all, youse, etc.).

  24. tigerears said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 4:39 am

    In my neck of the English woods, 'all of you' would be used here. 'Seriously, all of you. Stop it.'

  25. R. Fenwick said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 7:51 am

    @Jerry Packard: In typical speech the noun usually comes first and the pronoun follows it. So, the pronoun is a deictic element in which the pronoun is the anaphor and the antecedent precedes it.

    What I said wasn't a context-free pronouncement about the entirety of English pronominal syntactic usage. My statement was a specific point about the you people (more generally, you X) construction that was aimed directly at addresssing Bloix's specific question. In the you X construction, the pronoun you does indeed come first and the noun is an apposited modifier: you people is grammatical, *people you is not.

    It could be that ‘the noun serves as an appositional modifier appended for disambiguating purposes’, but it also seems like the normal (usually morphological) marking (suffixing) the pronoun as plural (y’all, youse, etc.)

    How could vocatives of the form [you + lexical noun] possibly be morphological? How could it be suffixation and not a kind of appositional modification?

    Also, y'all and youse really aren't "normal" for English as a whole. They're both restricted by language variety and by register. And on what basis could one argue that they're morphologically formed? Y'all isn't a morphological complex; it's a contracted syntactic compound lexified as a unit (which is why all y'all is perfectly acceptable in many such varieties), not unlike Spanish ustedvuestra merced. You might have a better case for youse, but even there the morpheme that's used to make the derivation is irregularly extended from another morpheme class and is entirely unproductive (*"hims" and the like are not possible).

  26. Batchman said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 1:09 pm

    @Bloix: "It may not be strictly logical, but it's perfectly grammatical and intelligible to address a group of people with a statement that's intended to apply to each member of the group individually." Together with the subway platform announcement example, that reminded me of being in school and the teacher asking something like "Does everyone have the assignment?" and me wanting to be a smartass and reply "I have no idea if everyone has the assignment."

    @Hammu: "Does a vocative always need to be 2nd person?" There is effectively a 3rd person vocative, somewhat archaic, normally expressed as "Let him/her/them …" or "May he/she/they …".

  27. Batchman said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 1:10 pm

    Never mind. That was a 3rd person imperative, not a vocative.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 1:45 pm

    In my idiolect you can either say, e.g. "Don't start with me!" or "Don't you start with me!" ("Don't you be starting with me!" is not quite in my idiolect, but I wouldn't quite call it non-standard.) The version(s) with "you" seem a bit more emphatic and maybe a bit more informal/colloquial. Is it fair to also call this a "vocative you" (singular or otherwise), of the sort addressed above? I will admit it feels a little more natural with a singular addressee rather than plural addressees, and for whatever reasons (I don't have a working hypothesis why) it fits my idiolect in a way that the "Come here, you" structure does not. Although I guess "come here, you," is just a polarity-reversed version of the middle of "Hit the road, Jack / And don't you come back / No more, no more, no more, no more"?

  29. Dan Faulkner said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 3:11 pm

    I grew up in Virginia in the 1970s, with parents from the Midwest. So I use both y'all and you (pl.), with roughly equal frequency. As far as I can tell, for me they are completely interchangeable… except in the vocative, as Mark demonstrated. I was hoping to find some other situation where they can't be freely swapped, but no luck.

  30. JPL said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 5:47 pm

    @Batchman:
    " Does everyone have the assignment?"
    Would the joke (as opposed to the "strictly logical") have worked in the same way if the teacher had said, "Y'all got the assignment?", and you had said, "I have no idea if we all have the assignment."? (As opposed also to e.g., "Do you all have the assignment?", etc.) If it wouldn't go over in the same way, why exactly wouldn't it? What's the difference? Is it that the examples with "everyone" or even "you all" are trading on an ambiguity that "y'all" doesn't have, at least as strongly? If so, what are the two senses involved? And why the difference?

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 5:13 am

    Regarding Batchman's unfulfilled desire to respond "I have no idea if everyone has the assignment" to his teacher's "Does everyone have the assignment ?", there an interesting use of this idea in a logic problem which many to whom I have put it have failed to spot. A group of three philosophers enter a bar, and the barman asks "D'y'all want a drink ?". The first one thinks for a second, and then says "I don't know". The second then does exactly the same, after which the third immediately says "Yes please !". The question which many have failed to answer is "How did the third one know when the first two did not ?".

  32. chris said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 7:03 am

    @Batchman, Philip Taylor:
    By the same principle, in the classroom example, after the teacher asks "Does everyone have their assignment?", there are several seconds of silence and then the smartest kid in the class says "Yes".

    IIRC, the previously discussed example on LL was "Use both lanes" (as a road sign), which has the interesting property that one driver actually COULD use both lanes (by straddling the line), but everyone immediately understands that is not what anyone wants. It can only pragmatically be short for "Some of you use the left lane while others of you are using the right lane" — which would make an awkward sign.

  33. AmyW said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 11:38 am

    Does "you" as a vocative work better at the beginning of a sentence?

    You there, stop that!

    I feel like I could say that to a group of 2 or 3 people in a way that I couldn't at the end of a sentence, maybe because it is functioning to get someone's attention? Is it still a vocative?

  34. Rodger C said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 10:26 am

    @Amy W: That's certainly a vocative, but as the rest of the sentence reflects, it implies a peremptory tone.

  35. Viseguy said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 6:51 pm

    There may be some politicized drug efficacy evaluation baked into the FDA's "y'all", insofar as the locution is immediately relatable to a major portion of the tweet's target audience.

  36. Batchman said,

    September 18, 2021 @ 5:40 pm

    Here's the answer: If either the first or the second philosopher at the bar had not wanted a drink, they would have known that the answer to what is essentially a mathematical logic question, "Do all 3 philosophers want a drink?", would be No. Since they don't know, clearly each of them is in the drink-wanting state. The third philosopher now has this information and, since s/he also is desirous of a drink, knows that all 3 do.

  37. Batchman said,

    September 18, 2021 @ 5:43 pm

    @chris: In many cases (like recently on Route 128 in Massachusetts), construction activity in the middle of the highway splits the lanes into two discontiguous sections on either side of the construction. A sign telling drivers to use both sides of that configuration could not be literally obeyed even in straddling mode.

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