Note on 'Singular' Y'ALL

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Fri May 26 13:39:19 UTC 2006

American Speech 76.3 (2001) 335-336


Data Concerning Putative Singular y'all 

Ronald R. Butters, Duke University 

There has been considerable discussion in the past in American Speech about 
whether the pronoun y'all is coming to be used in the singular in the American 
South (e.g., Richardson 1984, who says it is not, and Tillery and Bailey 1998 
and Tillery, Wikle, and Bailey 2000, who say it is; cf. Montgomery 1996). It 
has always seemed to me that arguments in support of putative singular y'all 
depend either on (1) data that is an artifact of the research situation or (2) a 
mistaken understanding of the pragmatics of the reported utterance--as, for 
example, when a salesperson bids goodbye to a solitary customer by saying Y'all 
come back, hear? (an idiom meaning 'you and your friends and family come 
back, please!'). Note that salespersons are not reported as greeting their 
solitary customers with *Can I help y'all?

In May 2001, I was partner to a conversation that I thought at first was 
going to change my view of this issue; however, it ended up merely confirming it. 
Fred, a 21-year-old working-class white native of Hillsborough, North 
Carolina, was telling a story about how he had successfully rejected a friend's offer 
to supply him with some unspecified illicit drugs. What follows is a 
paraphrase of Fred's actual utterance. The conversation was not mechanically recorded. 
However, I made notes about the conversation only a few minutes after it took 
place, and I am certain that I have been faithful to the significant details. 

Fred: So all the time I was cutting the lawn I kept thinking about how great 
it would be to get high. And wouldn't you know it, just as I was finishing the 
job one of my old running buddies pulled up in his car and immediately 
started talking about how he had a new supply of great drugs and how I should come 
off with him and get high. I told him I wasn't interested, that I was not going 
to do any drugs, not today. Well, he got right ugly, so I said, "Y'ALL get in 
Y'ALL'S car and get out of here." And they left. 

If one is looking for evidence for putative singular y'all, it would 
seemingly be hard to find better data than this. The evidence of the immediately 
antecedent singular phrase one of my old running buddies and the singular pronouns 
his, he, and him appears to argue overwhelmingly that Fred's y'all is a 
singular pronoun. Though it is a bit of a stretch, one could even attempt to explain 
the third-person plural they in the final sentence as an instance of the 
impersonal singular they (cf. Everyone likes pizza, don't they?) in agreement with 
the grammatical plurality of y'all, as [End Page 335] distinct from its 
semantic singularity. (See Butters and Aycock 1987 for parallel instances of plural 
verbs used with singular y'all in Hollywood pseudo-Southern dialect in the 

But in fact, that is not what Fred meant at all. I asked him, "How many 
people were there trying to get you to go off and use?" 

Fred looked puzzled. "Two," he said, "my buddy and his girlfriend. And she 
got even uglier than he did." 

Fred's usage not only was NOT an instance of singular y'all, his usage 
suggests strongly that, in his mind, y'all cannot ever be singular: he assumed that 
his audience would understand from his selection of y'all (rather than you) 
that there were two or more people in the car that he was ordering to be removed 
from his backyard. My follow-up question, from his point of view, appears to 
have been redundant. 


Butters, Ronald R., and Stuart Campbell Aycock. 1987. "More on Singular y'all
." American Speech 62: 191-92. 

Montgomery, Michael B. 1996. "The Future of Southern American English." SECOL 
Review 20: 1-24. 

Richardson, Gina. 1984. "Can y'all Function as a Singular Pronoun in Southern 
Dialect?" American Speech 59: 51-59. 

Tillery, Jan, and Guy Bailey. 1998. "Yall in Oklahoma." American Speech 73: 

Tillery, Jan, Tom Wikle, and Guy Bailey. 2000. "The Nationalization of a 
Southernism." Journal of English Linguistics 28: 280-94. 

In a message dated 5/25/06 10:32:59 PM, laurence.horn at YALE.EDU writes:

> >Couldn't youse be plural in the sense, "You folks who run the church"?
> >
> Right, I was thinking it's a lot like some of those "singular"
> instances of "y'all" that turn out on closer inspection to be 'you
> and the horse you rode in on', or more generally 'you and your
> bunch'.  Could the red-headed warrior have declared to the priest,
> "Father, I hope you don't tink I'm a poiv, but I love youse" ?

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