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You there

It’s a shame that we can no longer tutoyer in English.

French, like many other languages, has two forms for the second-person pronoun, tu and vous. But for the French, the distinction is not merely between singular and plural forms, but also for a whole gradation of social meanings.

Tutoyer, to address familiarly, allows the speaker to use tu for those with whom one is on intimate terms—a spouse, one’s children, a lover, pets. But it can also be used with social inferiors, e.g., the help. The formal vous can be used as a term of respect for a boss or other social superior, but it can also be used to pointedly distance oneself from a social equal—we know each other, but we are not really friends.

English used to have that capacity, with thou and you.* Now even the Quakers have given up on it. Instead of an easy marker, we have to look for more subtle clues to those social gradations, especially now that everyone also appears to be on a first-name basis with everyone else. When the boss calls the underlings “you guys,” the tutoyer may be a signal of something ugly in the offing. And that exquisite Southern courtesy may be telling you that you have gotten through the door, but you’ll never get into the club.


*Speaking of that, where are the peevers? Who is protecting us from the long slide into barbarism? The thou/you thing used to be a rule, people. You’re letting down the side.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:19 AM | | Comments (22)


I was recently distressed to find that my church had changed the thee and thou to you and your in the traditional hymns we sing (only rarely now). They added a layer of meaning--we have a relationship with God. The music leaders thought they sounded out-of-date.

The peevers have saved their ammo for the singular "they" with its much more ancient heritage. And if you're going to complain about singular "you" you have to complain about the loss of the nominative "ye".

There is a beautiful exchange in the movie Rob Roy where one character says to another - his inferior - "Don't you thou me!".

I suspect that most of the audience missed it completely, or, if they heard it, hadn't a clue what it meant.

(That thought left me with a distinct sense of superiority, feeling that I could 'thou' anyone at all.)

But if the distinction was useful, why shouldn't the peevers have argued against its passing?

In Spanish, the verb is tutear. On a related note, consider the Turkish third person singular, on, which serves for our trinity of he, she, and it. If you know anything about Turkish, you will see the effect with all the cases, too.

Perhaps a descriptivist can set up rules for a prescriptivist to follow?

Terms to be defined:
Youse guys
Hey you!

Any more?

I remember from Spanish class the phrase "podemos tutearnos?" -- can we address each other with the tú form? (i.e. are we friends enough to switch over?)

How could I miss the obvious?

You is the formal. The familiar is ......


I think the hymn-rewriters were right, for "you" and "your" are now the pronouns of intimacy as well as formality, and in most languages God is addressed intimately. (French is the exception: traditionally God was *vous*, though he too has now become *tu*.)

As much as I would like to launch a PR campaign to bring back thou and thee, in the real world of immutable change, we no longer use the second person singular pronouns; their time has passed.

Is there any distinction between "y'all" and "you all"?

Of course, there's always the "I thou thee, thou traitor!" of Sir Walter Raleigh's trial...

Then there's the emphatic "all y'all" ...

Dahlink: "You all" is merely a conventional way of writing what is invariably pronounced "y'all" in the y'all-dialect-speaking region (i.e. the American South).

Brian: Let's kill this one before it spreads. "All y'all" is not emphatic, or plural, or anything else. It is short for "all of y'all", which is the Southern way of saying "all of you", that's all.

Thank you, John Cowan, Does this mean it is not possible to speak with good diction in the South?

And then there is the construction "you people," which has landed more than one politician in hot water, if memory serves.

I remember being nonplussed the first time one of my students (in Texas) addressed me, just me, as "y'all" -- as if the plural had once again become the mark of formality as well. Perhaps this is why we need "all y'all" -- to mark a true plural.

I knew it! I knew there were people in the South--well, Texas--using y'all as a singular.

There is, of course, "you guys".

Eve, there's also the related phrase "youse guys." I grew up next to a woman who used this regularly. Very sweet woman, too.


Isn't "youse guys" sort of Brooklynese?

Actually, sounds like it could fit squarely into the mean-streets "wiseguy"/ mafioso vernacular of any major north eastern U.S. metropolis, I'd say.

Actors Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro immediately come to mind.

" $%#&*#@$@ 'fagetaboutit', youse guys. Capeche (?)."

No, no....... not the fingers! HA!


From the Jean Renoir film "Grande Illusion": After going through rough times in the prisoner of war camp, the working-class Lieutenant (Jean Gabin) asks the aristocratic Lieutenant (Pierre Fresnay), "Alors, on pourrait se tutoyer?" ("Could we be familiar with each other?" - essentially asking, could we be buddies?). Fresnay answers, "Je dis 'vous' à ma femme" ("I speak formally to my wife.") The exchange captures a class distinction that is lost to translation.

Dahlink: no, of course not: pronunciation comes before spelling. We don't insist that people rhyme "one" with "bone" to have good diction; on the contrary.

LisaMc: Y'all-speakers will use "y'all" to a single person if that person represents an institution. You can go into a store and ask "Do y'all have any bottled water?" to the only clerk in the store, because the question is really addressed to the whole store, not just the clerk. Saying "Are y'all drinking bottled water?" to a single person would be preposterous, *unless* the question referred to the whole town.

As Mr. McIntyre well knows, if he reflects on it a bit.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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