She reserved a special disapproval for “you guys,” which she considered the “most insidious” of these phrases, and with the help of former students made a small card that anyone could print out and, for instance, leave behind at a restaurant to communicate their dislike of the term to an employee who had used it. “When you’re talking to a group of customers, gender doesn’t really matter, so why not replace ‘you guys’ with ‘you all,’ ‘folks,’ or ‘y’all,” it reads in part.
Indeed, why not? The problem, for those who want to ditch guys, is that their language doesn’t present them with many versatile replacements; English lacks a standard gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun, like the Spanish ustedes or the German ihr. The alternatives to guys tend to have downsides of their own. Folks—inclusive and warm, but a little affected and forced. Friends—fine in social contexts, strange at work. People—too often pushy and impersonal. Team—its sense of camaraderie wears out with constant use. One might cobble together a mix of pronouns to deploy in different scenarios, but no one term can do it all.
(I also came across some more-obscure alternatives. Some write guise as attempt to de-gender the word; I heard about a socialist political group that preferred comrades; one teacher, to draw attention to the problem with guys, said she sometimes jokingly addresses her class as ladies or gals.)
Which brings us all to y’all, which seems to be the alternative with the most passionate backers. It has many of the necessary features to be the heir to guys—inviting, inclusive, monosyllabic. But what holds it back is its informality, as well as its regional associations, which many don’t know how to handle.
I heard from people born and living outside the South who didn’t feel they could use the term naturally. “They’ll say, ‘y’all’? Are you from Texas?,” one Californian told me; another, who now lives in the Midwest, says she feels “self-conscious saying it as a non-Southerner.” And I heard from a Turkish-born woman living in Los Angeles who “felt a bit choiceless” selecting between guys and y’all after coming to the U.S., because of the gender politics of the former and because she didn’t “have the background to use the latter.” (She lamented that English lacks a gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun, unlike Turkish, her native tongue.)
McWhorter, the Columbia linguist, summed up the downside of y’all by saying, “You can’t use it at a board meeting.” Might it shed its informality if more people adopt it? "That's not going to change,” McWhorter said, “especially because it's associated with two things: the South and black people. And those two things are considered informal, and many people would have less polite things to say about both of those things."
Which is one of the reasons the gender-neutral guys has had such staying power. But over its 400-year lifespan, guy’s meaning has already changed multiple times—getting less specific as time went on. At first, the word’s definition was quite narrow: Guy referred to an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the infamous Brit who tried and failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. The word’s meaning radiated outward from there, encompassing larger and larger groups. It started to be used to signify any effigy, then any fearsome person and/or any man. And then, in the plural, it came to mean—in the U.S. sometime around 100 years ago—just about anyone.