How did this happen? Anyone who’s used English in any capacity knows that “you” is a sorry excuse for a plural pronoun. Imagine the confusion of walking into a crowded room and yelling, “You need to listen up!” Who would everyone assume you were referring to? How could they tell? It’s rare to find a scenario in which a person is clearly addressing a group of people that doesn’t include an implied qualifier (as in, in the context of a speech) or an unnecessarily long explicit qualifier (“you all”) to specify that “you” is doing the duty that it has been assigned as a plural pronoun. This is some terribly inefficient language, and it’s high time for a fix. It’s time for “y’all.”
Other countries might laugh at our difficulty. Spanish speakers in Spain have their vosotros; Spanish speakers elsewhere have ustedes. German has ihr. Swahili uses nyinyi. But modern English requires that “you” be jury-rigged in order to fulfill its true plural purpose.
Americans have created their own ingenious solutions to provide the proper plural context. “You guys” seems to be the most dominant, with “you all,” “youse,” “you-uns,” or even “yinz” popping up in different local contexts. The Brits have “you lot.” Trinidadian Creole uses allyuh, which from its construction seems related to “you all.” And then there’s our precious gem, “y’all,” a staple of both Southern English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which either spun from or spun off Southern English itself.
“You guys” isn’t sufficient as a national solution. Firstly, we live in an era of increased scrutiny and consideration over the gender of pronouns that we use, especially as feminism and trans activism expand and shape languages. “They” is entering the picture as a formal gender-neutral singular and plural pronoun. And although “guys” has lost some of its masculine connotation in the English language by proximity to “you,” it’s still a word that immediately connotes a group of men. As workplace and social situations seek to become increasingly inclusive of women and people who don’t conform to gender binaries, “you guys” feels more and more archaic.
Plus, it’s just a damn clunky way to speak. There’s no flow to it, and the slang nature of “guys” makes it ill-suited for formal speeches or addresses. “I say to you guys today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream,” takes some gravitas away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., no? Even in the realm of slang, “you guys” isn’t really all that cool, conjuring visions of the Fonz in his leather jacket. Or Eric Cartman. The only person to successfully get away with “you guys” and sound cool was Sloth, and very few people will ever be as awesome as Sloth.
Which is why we need “y’all.” It doesn’t suffer from having the gender implications or general lameness of “you guys.” It sounds elegant, warm, and inviting. It offers both economy and an end to second-person ambiguity. Teach it in schools across the country. Mouth it to babies. Put it on end-of-grade tests. With respect to “youse,” “yinz,” and “you-uns,” its lesser-known cousins, “y’all” is the most widely practiced of the options and could be the easiest to implement.