How does "you guys" work in English? Linguistically?
August 26, 2020 3:33 AM   Subscribe

Linguist Bronwyn M. Bjorkman considers the English phrase "you guys". "...you guys looks like an English pronoun (or at least not like an ordinary noun phrase) in its irregular possessive morphology and in allowing bound variable interpretations, but unlike a pronoun in its position with verb particles and in resisting repetition." She discusses whether the phrase "perpetuates the idea that masculine is the default, and so is something we should avoid using".

From Bjorkman's essay:
Let us pause to really consider this possessive form for a moment: your guys’s. Though English is not exactly overflowing with case distinctions on its pronouns, case on pronouns is nonetheless surprisingly tricky, and it gets more so in the face of almost any degree of syntactic complexity. But still: your guys’s. Not only does [jɔrgajzəz] not exactly trip merrily off the tongue, it’s also morphologically weird. It seems to involve a doubly marked possessive, with not only the possessive form your, but also possessive “‘s” being pronounced as a full [əz] (for at least some speakers, myself among them) even though it follows a word (guys) that at least looks like it ends in the regular plural suffix -s.

(The arguably plural ending on guys is relevant because in other contexts the possessive and the plural collapse together in a convenient haplology—again: for at least some speakers, including me—so that the possessor in a phrase like “the horses’ tails” is pronounced as [hɔrsəz] rather than as [hɔrsəzəz].)

... this morphological car-crash of a form...

....

Some changes are hard, but necessary, because they require rewiring one’s grammatical system. Using they or neopronouns as nonbinary pronouns of reference fall under this heading. Other changes are both (comparatively) easy and have compelling reasons, like not using “mankind” to mean “humanity”, or avoiding crazy as an intensifier (i.e. meaning very), though I can personally attest that the latter is surprisingly difficult, perhaps because intensifiers are arguably functional elements and thus more deeply embedded in grammar.
Bjorkman tentatively concludes that, pending compelling evidence, "though I do try to avoid using you guys when speaking publicly to an audience whose linguistic background I don’t know, on balance I have not been convinced that the harm of you guys is enough to motivate the effort that would be needed to eliminate it from my speech entirely."

Relatedly: Julia Evans's 2013 "When is 'guys' gender neutral? I did a survey!" and Stan Carey's 2016 Lexicon Valley piece in Slate, "How Gender Neutral Is Guys, Really?".
posted by brainwane (230 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
For a book, albeit a short book, length treatment kindly see: Allan Metcalf's The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word. OUP, 2019.
posted by mfoight at 3:50 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I draw the line at the phonetically-attrocious "your guys's". To my ears, it's an auditory needle-scratch, akin to the visual needle-scratch that is the grocer's apostrophe.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:19 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


“You guys” doesn’t make masculine the default because “guys” evolved from masculine to neutral long ago.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:32 AM on August 26 [21 favorites]


English desperately needs a plural form of "you" that is distinct from the singular "you". It keeps making attempts like "you guys", "youse guys", "y'all", and even "y'uns" (the last one being so far as I can tell a contraction of "you ones" used in a small region of northwest Arkansas around Searcy county, though I would not be surprised if it popped up elsewhere. I first encountered it on a school bus on the first day of school one year when I was about eleven years old. My brother and I were the new kids, and the other kids asked us "Where do y'uns live?" to which we replied, "what?". After a couple iterations of that, during which I briefly wondered if this were some strange hillbilly riddle, I finally realized that "y'uns" was their version of "y'all". So we told them. We were then told, "Y'uns talk funny.". Oh, okay.) Anyway, none of these pluralization attempts ever seems to get past being slang though, so we keep having more attempts.
posted by smcameron at 4:36 AM on August 26 [8 favorites]


I'm equally fascinated by the rapid evolution of UK English's "innit". Starting life as a simple contraction of "isn't it", it's now expanded to encompass anything from "don't they?" to "haven't we?" and a dozen other variations besides.

Examples:
"She went on holiday to France, innit?"
"We've already seen this episode, innit?"
"He was well drunk, innit?"

I guess the word's now best viewed as a generalised invitation to agree with whatever's been said. Any thoughts, linguists?
posted by Paul Slade at 4:37 AM on August 26 [18 favorites]


cf. "eh"
posted by saturday_morning at 4:39 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


"Hey guys" is pretty much the only usage that comes close to gender neutral. But the rest of the time it runs into the same problems as "man" or even more plausibly neutral terms like "chairman", where people try to use it as gender-neutral some times but the rest of the time the human brain perceives it as a gendered term. "Workman", "network guy", "I know a guy", "I dated 2 guys in college".
posted by rmd1023 at 4:46 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


For the eleven billionth time, you don't get to determine whether your language causes harm. The people you address get to do that.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:46 AM on August 26 [67 favorites]


I've been trying very hard to replace "guys" with "folks", particularly in my business conversations as an attempt to model the behaviors I want to see. Even then, I slip because it's so heavily embedded in the language and culture.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:50 AM on August 26 [21 favorites]


English desperately needs a plural form of "you" that is distinct from the singular "you". It keeps making attempts like "you guys", "youse guys", "y'all", and even "y'uns"...

I'd say "y'all" has become the breakout winner in that particular horse race. It still faces an uphill battle, though, to shed the enormous "country" baggage it carries to become the universal default. I suspect it will have to go through a few decades of ironic use before it emerges from that particular linguistic cocoon.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:51 AM on August 26 [26 favorites]


My 2 cents: I hear "guys" as gender neutral. While I can't say the same re "guy", I'm not unduly bothered when others use it as gender neutral—only in informal situations, of course.

I am FAR more bothered by the very common practice of referring to grown women as "girls", which taints most love songs for me, unfortunately. And, Christ Almighty, a grown man refer to a woman he desires as "little girl" should literally be criminal. (I'm looking at you, Bruce.)
posted by she's not there at 4:52 AM on August 26 [26 favorites]


"Y'all" is gender neutral. It also has the side bonus of amazing contractions like "y'all'd've"
posted by Foosnark at 4:55 AM on August 26 [80 favorites]


Oh yeah, Douglas Hofstadter (of "Godel, Escher Bach" fame, (sorry I don't know how to type an umlaut)) wrote about "you guys" back in 1991. There's a mention of it in this paper which I haven't read yet, other than to find this quote:
To me it is inconceivable that the masculine-drenched imagery of the word "guy" would not flow over into the plural, and also into the vocative plural. In fact, I am convinced that it is precisely because of the subliminal aura of masculinity -- spunk, liveliness, independence, strength, self-confidence, and so on --all highly desirable qualities for anyone, in this age of increasing freedom for girls and women -- that the word "guy(s)" has become so desirable as a description.
And he also wrote similarly about it in "Le Ton Beau de Marot" for a few pages worth (the index for that book is incredible.) It seemed to me a bit weird to be quite so hung up on the masculinity of the word "guys", but maybe that's because, to me, "you guys" was such a common expression that the idea of that masculinity of "guys" it never really rose to the level of conscious thought, and I even use the word "guys" alone to refer collectively to inanimate objects or concepts (e.g.: I might refer to the individual elements of an array in some computer code as "these guys".) I suppose Hofstadter would find "y'uns" ("you ones") preferable.
posted by smcameron at 4:58 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


Y’all is totally the best thing about moving to the South. And you can disprove “guys” as gender neutral by simply asking a hetero male to go around saying “I like to sleep with guys.”
posted by rikschell at 4:59 AM on August 26 [45 favorites]


I draw the line at the phonetically-attrocious "your guys's".

Interestingly, the reference at the end to another piece discussing "your guys's" (by Amy Rose Deal) actually uses your guys', which seems less grotesque to me, although still somewhat grotesque.

Anyway, I thought the main link was interesting, but not really convincing.
The use of you guys to refer to groups that contain no individuals who could be identified as the guy demonstrates very clearly that for speakers like me—though not speakers who don’t use you guys this way—you guys does not inherit the masculine denotation of the noun guy as a matter of grammar. It is a trickier question whether it might nonetheless bias a masculine interpretation, or contribute to a view of men as “default” persons, but for that I think we would need as-yet-nonexistent psycholinguistic results.
This seems to me to be virtually indistinguishable from someone 30 years ago arguing that it's fine to say things like "mankind" because everyone understands what they mean. In a sense they're right - everyone understands what someone means when they say "mankind", or any of the numerous other formations which almost always (although not 100% of the time) use "man" to mean "human" - but you don't need detailed psycholinguistic research to be able to see why that's beside the point.

(Or, on preview, what Douglas Hofstadter said.)
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:00 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


English desperately needs a plural form of "you" that is distinct from the singular "you". It keeps making attempts like "you guys", "youse guys", "y'all", and even "y'uns".

Ireland uses "ye" or "yiz/youse" depending on what part of the country you are from. Colm Ó Broin prepared an isogloss. (Twitter Link) I'm from the yiz/youse side of the line and will use both - youse more for emphasis.

It's mostly only in speech, rather than written. However, a check of the Oireachtas (parliament) debates, gives me incidences of both youse and ye.
posted by scorbet at 5:00 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


And you can disprove “guys” as gender neutral by simply asking a hetero male to go around saying “I like to sleep with guys.”

I contend that "guys" being neutral requires the inclusion of a preceding "you". Thus...

“I like to sleep with guys.” = gendered male
“I like to sleep with you guys.” = gendered neutral
posted by Thorzdad at 5:03 AM on August 26 [31 favorites]


"Y'all" is gender neutral. It also has the side bonus of amazing contractions like "y'all'd've"

Plus it enables the immortal epithet "Fuck all of y'all"
posted by thelonius at 5:35 AM on August 26 [41 favorites]


English desperately needs a plural form of "you" that is distinct from the singular "you".

We used to have one! It was “you!”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:36 AM on August 26 [20 favorites]


It sucks that "y'all" has been ruined by people who start lecturing Twitter threads with it.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:36 AM on August 26


I agreed with Thorzdad: "guys" is only gender neutral when preceded by "you." I'm from New York City, and "you guys" is what we say. I would even use "you guys" when a group is all women.

"Y'all" seems like a decent replacement, although Bjorkman notes that using "y'all" seems like cultural appropriation, kind of like using "yinz" if you're not from Pittsburgh or other parts of Western Pennsylvania. I went to school in NC and I still feel weird saying "y'all."

I did know one person who used the word "guy" as gender neutral, but she used the way most New Yorkers would use "mensch," for example, "She's a real guy." To her, if someone was a "guy" it meant that they were a good person you could count on. But I've never known anyone else who used it that way.
posted by ceejaytee at 5:39 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


Fantastic .ie isogloss link, scorbet.

That reminds me, we occasionally say “all youse” in America as well- often as a possessive.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 5:43 AM on August 26


I find it very strange to hear (here at Metafilter of all places!) so many arguments that "you guys" is gender neutral and does not indicate that males are the default humans. Like it literally is taking a masculine and using it to describe a group of people no matter their gender. This is definitely one to add to the list of terms that everyone uses but is actually kind of sexist. (I even use it myself, hey its the water we swim in). It is only when this is recognized that we can move on to better expressions.

Y'all is definitely the best, and being the shortened form of "you all" is more grammatically similar to our current options of pronouns than any of the rest.

Plus it enables the immortal epithet "Fuck all of y'all"
Correction: that would just be "Fuck all y'all". No need for the "of" to make things sound proper.

And for anyone that doesn't know, here's how y'all works:
1 person: you
2-3 people: y'all
4+ people: all y'all

Bless all y'all's hearts!
posted by LizBoBiz at 5:54 AM on August 26 [57 favorites]


I am cool with "hey guys" as gender neutral , depending on how it's said, and definitely use it myself, including when the people I'm addressing are all women. But there's definitely a nuance of pronunciation at work there -- if a guy came in and said "Hey -- guys" I would probably feel the tiniest bit excluded.

"You guys" really feels gender neutral to me.

"your guys's" is just weird. Do people say that? Surely it's "you guys's".
posted by Mchelly at 6:07 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]


The other problem with "you guys" is that it makes y'all sound like snooty yankees. ;)
posted by uberchet at 6:08 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


nono, all y'all is doesn't make a plural (y'all) even more plural. Y'all is perfectly acceptable when addressing even large crowds. "How y'all doin' tonight?" is normal usage on stage in front of tens of thousands.

Where all y'all comes into its own is in the matter of depersonalization. Y'all is intimate even to crowds (friendly crowds); it implies a sense of one-ness. All y'all is impersonal, and does not. You gather an audience towards a stage with y'all: "y'all come closer" -- you tell a crowd to disperse with all y'all: "all y'all go home."
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:12 AM on August 26 [36 favorites]


I'd say "y'all" has become the breakout winner in that particular horse race. It still faces an uphill battle, though, to shed the enormous "country" baggage it carries to become the universal default.

When I moved to the Pacific northwest, friends--knowing I was a southerner--would good-naturedly mock my use of y'all, despite my protests that it was more linguistically exact. Then not five minutes later they wouldn't even hear themselves use the same word, quite unironically.

It was amusing, and the mocking stopped when I started pointing it out. Which is all to say, I agree with you.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 6:14 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


As for "guys" or "you guys" no, this is not acceptably gender neutral to me, and if you use it to include me I will correct you. Your intent is only half of the process of communication. I do not accept being labeled a guy. I am not a guy. I may be a folk. But not a guy.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:16 AM on August 26 [18 favorites]


The other problem with "you guys" is that it makes y'all sound like snooty yankees. ;)

I learned it from growing up in California, Oregon, Washington, and the like, hardly Yankee country.

I grew up saying it and will still continue to say it when I don't mean to. "Y'all" labels one a hick, and as part of a very poor but educated family in Oklahoma, I resisted it greatly as a child, especially as it felt like it was trying to squeeze out my previous you pluralization. My feelings towards y'all have greatly softened, but I still have moments of thinking of it as the sign of the small-town provincialism and bigotry with which I struggled as a child.

I say "You folks" when I can, but I often accidentally pronounce the l in folk, which makes it a hard to say and awkward word (I do with with he inside of an egg, too, saying yoLk instead of yoke).

Gender neutrality can be a good idea with language, but at certain points, it competes with other priorities such as aesthetics and regional variations. Unless it automatically supersedes these other concerns for everyone, we're gonna have a tough time shifting out of it.

Whether we should or not, I leave to you wonderful folks.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 6:16 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


INTERIOR -- RELIANT BRIDGE
The bridge is smashed. Enterprise's attack has devastated Reliant. Lights are flickering, consoles are broken, wiring is strewn about, and pieces of the bridge ceiling have collapsed onto the floor. The dead are at their stations, crushed under debris. KHAN rises from behind a console, burned terribly. He looks for JOACHIM, finding him under a huge piece of debris. Moving the debris aside, KHAN moves to comfort JOACHIM, who is wounded terribly.

JOACHIM: Y'all... is the superior... second-person plural. *dies*
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:18 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


I hate being a folk, and I really hate being "you folks." Not a gender thing, it just feels a bit dehumanizing to me. Fine with it in third person, though.
posted by Mchelly at 6:21 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


To my ear—at least lately—here's something old-timey and antique sounding to the term "guy" and "guys." As in the musical "Guys and Dolls." Almost like referring to New Yorkers as "Knickerbockers." But I am a person who thinks about stuff like this, especially when I see phrases written and when I read books from times past, etc.

I also prefer using the term "folks" nowadays, but I also slip and use "guys" from time to time. I agree it's pointlessly gendered—with a dash of old-timeyness on top. So I have stopped using it as much as possible. I recently began working with the public, so I'm speaking to all sorts of different people in an area that includes many LGBTQ folks as well.

I appreciate the term "You all" or "Y'all" but I was raised in the north side of Chicago and half my family goes back several generations in the city (the other half is one generation off the boat from Sweden), and me saying "Y'all" sounds phony or affected... to my ears. Maybe even weirdly culture-appropriating as I have never spent much time in the South at all (outside of Miami, which ain't the South). So to me it sounds like I'm imitating something I've seen in a movie or on TV.

I recently dealt with a trans customer, and had to relay info about them to another co-worker so I could get the correct item to this customer's hands. I found I had to switch to using the term "this person" versus "they/them" as pronoun because we were getting confused as to whether I was referring to a singular individual or a couple, or group. But it worked out just fine. Language changes, and should change. After reading this post and discussion, I'm even more focussed on not using "guys" in everyday speech.

I love reading and thinking about language so thanks for this post.
posted by SoberHighland at 6:26 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


My all time favorite variation on "you guys:" The clerk checking us in at a hotel finished with "I hope your 'guys ez ez' stay is fun"
posted by cccorlew at 6:28 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


And for anyone that doesn't know, here's how y'all works:
1 person: you
2-3 people: y'all
4+ people: all y'all


In some contexts. In other contexts or uses, the difference between y'all and all y'all is more about immediacy of relationships than it is numbers. One "all y'all" might turn out to have fewer people than another "y'all."
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:29 AM on August 26 [10 favorites]


I also grew up in a community of youse and youse guys, which were said completely unironically, so maybe for me "you guys" still sounds a bit more cultured.
posted by Mchelly at 6:36 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Just shorten it to you'gs, you'lls, or, easiest yet, yous and be done with it.
posted by gusottertrout at 6:37 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


On the one hand I appreciate Bjorkman’s honesty: “this is hard to change and I’m not gonna do it because I don’t see the benefit,” basically.

On the other hand it’s lazy AF.

Guys is not neutral. I am not a guy. I will absolutely correct people on this. Y’all, folks, team, all, peeps... this is a big language and there are certainly more words and terms out there to support this.
posted by hijinx at 6:37 AM on August 26 [14 favorites]


There's always pointing in multiple directions followed by a 'significant' eyebrow-raise. Can't wait to try this in my next Zoom call.
posted by aesop at 6:39 AM on August 26


I hate "y'all" with a passion when it is used by someone not from an area where that is part of the native dialect. I get that the train is moving in the direction of y'allsville and there is no point in fighting it, but in my experience it is predominantly used in a patronizing manner or when someone is trying to get "chummy."
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:45 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


When a dude comes over to me (F) and a group of all female friends in a club, I'd vastly prefer him to say "let me buy you guys a drink" over "let me buy you girls/ladies a drink" (shudder). If he says "folks" here, I'd be looking for a cowboy hat.
posted by airmail at 6:47 AM on August 26 [13 favorites]


Guys is not neutral.

did not anticipate this being the year that metafilter took a turn for the prescriptive, but i guess anything's possible in 2020!
posted by inire at 6:51 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]


The second person plural ("you") was lost as it came to become a more formal, polite way of address. The singular, informal was tossed away as being too rude.

This happened in other languages as well. In Dutch for example the second person plural is "jullie" which is essentially a shortening of "you people"

So it is not that English is unique and followed a different path. It seems that English is unique in being behind the other languages in replacing its lost second person plural. It is mired in this "y'all", "you guys" debate endlessly.
posted by vacapinta at 6:52 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I've been tending to use "people" or "folks" more lately than "you guys", to be honest. But that's mostly because others may see "you guys" as gendered even though I've been using it as neutral for decades (I don't wish to offend). I even use "y'all" now and then despite being from NY (sorry grumpybear69) for no other reason than it sounds better than "youse".
posted by tommasz at 6:54 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I'm equally fascinated by the rapid evolution of UK English's "innit".

The French equivalent n'est-ce pas has been in use depuis des lustres.

it's now expanded to encompass anything from "don't they?" to "haven't we?"

It's funny you should mention "they", now used inter alia as a neutral pronoun to replace "one" which is now archaic (only Prince Charles would ever say "one shoots horses, doesn't one?"). Other languages use the passive voice instead (ça ne se dit pas en français).

Horses are shot, innit?
posted by Cardinal Fang at 6:55 AM on August 26


I will never "y'all".

Never.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:56 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I hate "y'all" with a passion when it is used by someone not from an area where that is part of the native dialect.

prompts me to wonder what the equivalent of "y'all" would be in british english - "you lot" for informal speech, maybe, and expanding to "you all" to be slightly more formal, but can't immediately think of a 'properly' formal equivalent.
posted by inire at 6:58 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I am confused by this example from the article:
Another piece of evidence that you guys is a pronoun is that it can be interpreted as a bound variable—in other words, in (3) you guys can be interpreted as referring to “your team”, but it can also be interpreted as a variable that simply refers back to the subject.

(3) Only your team thinks you guys are going to win.
  1. No other team thinks you guys are going to win. (you guys = referential)
  2. No other team thinks they are going to win. (you guys = bound variable)
Can anyone* help me understand the second interpretation?

* I nearly wrote "you guys"....
posted by Westringia F. at 7:00 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


This happened in other languages as well. In Dutch for example the second person plural is "jullie" which is essentially a shortening of "you people"

"You people", of course, can be incredibly rude in English in certain contexts, to the point of racism.

Part of the fun of learning Dutch as an Englishman in Holland was understanding how rude Dutch people can sound when speaking English, and why. The prime example is the polite word for 'please'/'thank you', alstublieft, which directly translates to '[t]here you are'. So you buy something, they give it to you and say 'There you are!' which can sound very blunt, with a connotation of 'Take it and bugger off'. The informal word for 'please' is maar, which literally translates to 'just'; 'Just give me a beer' sounds like a spoilt child ('I want a beer, I want it now and I don't care if there's a queue').

Beware of direct translation, folks... er, I mean you guys... er...
posted by Cardinal Fang at 7:09 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


Can anyone* help me understand the second interpretation?

i think it's treating "only your team thinks you guys are going to win" as equivalent in meaning to "only your team thinks 'we are going to win'" - i.e. 'you guys' is used, as 'we' could be, to refer back to the subject 'your team', which seems like a less obvious but reasonable interpretation of that phrase to me.
posted by inire at 7:14 AM on August 26


I've been tending to use "people" or "folks" more lately than "you guys", to be honest.

But if you turn it in to "you people" and you've got yourself a whole different set of problems.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 7:18 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


English desperately needs a plural form of "you" that is distinct from the singular "you".

You was the plural. The singular was thou, which you can still hear in Northern English dialects. Other dialects have developed their own plural forms, e.g. the Norfolk and Pitcairn islanders use yorley.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 7:20 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


prompts me to wonder what the equivalent of "y'all" would be in british english - "you lot" for informal speech, maybe, and expanding to "you all" to be slightly more formal, but can't immediately think of a 'properly' formal equivalent.
posted by inire


"You lot" always feels aggressive and very othering. "The lot of you" has similar connotations.

My Northern Irish colleagues were always keen on "youse guys" and that was entirely gender-neutral in intent, used ubiquitously by men and women.

While I agree with the overall assessment and the linguistic validity of the argument, I've had women mention that they don't like being referred to as "guys", so I work not to use it.

I like to choose being kind over being right.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:34 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


"Your" doesn't belong in the possessive, because "your guy" is a third person, so "your guy's" or "your guys'" refers to the third person possessive.

It would have to be "you guys'" or "you guys's" (depending on your writing handbook).

It'd be a bit easier to parse if it was written as the one-word pronoun that people actually pronounce it and use it as. No one ever says "you. guys." It's always "euguise," like a variant of "Eugene", as distinct from "you, Gene."

So yeah, let's go to "euguise's house."
posted by explosion at 7:36 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


did not anticipate this being the year that metafilter took a turn for the prescriptive, but i guess anything's possible in 2020!
Just so we're clear about what you're saying here: you suggest that it is "prescriptive" to state that "guys" is male, and is heard as male by a broad section of people. Do I understand correctly?

Weird hill to try to die on, Inire.
posted by uberchet at 7:37 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


I’m gonna start saying “you dolls” to everyone
posted by noiseanoise at 7:38 AM on August 26 [20 favorites]


I find that in many instances where I might would say "you guys," I can replace it with "everybody."
posted by JanetLand at 7:41 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Descriptivists vs Prescriptivists, round 2 scrumptillion.

IDK, but descriptivism tends to win in the long run.
posted by bonehead at 7:43 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]


Anyway internalized misogyny for the win eh? Of course an unmarked masculine term is comfortably degendered, it’s unmarked and marked people don’t feel comfortable being addressed with marked language. It’s easier to defer to internalized misogyny and want to be called a guy than it is to reclaim and refashion a marked term and apply it to yourself.
posted by noiseanoise at 7:45 AM on August 26 [14 favorites]


Usage suggests that the second person plural use of "you guys" is gender neutral; that is descriptive. Seems like some people want to not use "you guys" because they are not comfortable with being grouped as a "guy"; that is perceptive. There are plenty of cases where prescriptive use of language is a good thing: not using vulgar language in inappropriate contexts, not using racist or sexist language, etc. Seems like y'all could make an effort to police your own language for the benefit of the people who feel uncomfortable with it.

As a linguist and a southerner, watching y'all tie y'alls selves up into knots over this is unfortunate.
posted by os tuberoes at 7:46 AM on August 26 [15 favorites]


I would 100% be in favor of changing it to euguise.

(But I'm still teaching y'all to everyone I meet over on this side of the pond. It's my contribution to the cultural exchange.)
posted by LizBoBiz at 7:56 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


The linguistic analysis is interesting but the whole argument for not changing "you guys" comes down to, "I'm not bothered by it so you shouldn't be either, or at least if you are I don't care."

There is no difference between "mankind" or "guys" other than it doesn't make her "twitch. "Guys" is constantly used to address groups of only women. I'm surprised this article didn't talk about the newly popular Millennial "my guy," which can refer to anyone of any gender. That doesn't actually make it non-gendered, though. Plenty of women and nonbinary people "twitch" being referred to as "you guys." Just because the author doesn't doesn't mean it's "not a compelling reason to change."

I was particularly bothered by this paragraph:
Though I’m someone who gets deeply annoyed whenever someone uses man to mean humanity, and someone who has (mostly) trained myself to stop using crazy as an intensifier, and though I do try to avoid using you guys when speaking publicly to an audience whose linguistic background I don’t know, on balance I have not been convinced that the harm of you guys is enough to motivate the effort that would be needed to eliminate it from my speech entirely—and since I am, on this occasion, in the group allegedly being excluded, my feelings about whether that exclusion is real are relevant in a way they aren’t for me as a cis person thinking about transgendered.
At no point does she acknowledge that as a cis person she likely has a different experience than trans or nonbinary people in response to gendered terms. That maybe it hurts trans women and nonbinary people more than it might hurt her. Maybe don't dismiss their experiences as "not compelling enough."

Also, if you're worried about appropriating y'all: you all is right there. It's perfectly natural, I use it all the time. "Hey, do you all want to come with?" "Are you all okay?" "You all look like you need a break." You all are welcome to use it. If you want to use it like a true Midwesterner, kinda slide it all together--not quite y'all, but more like yoal.
posted by brook horse at 8:00 AM on August 26 [19 favorites]


"You people", of course, can be incredibly rude in English in certain contexts, to the point of racism.

Yes, anytime you hear 'you people' in the US, the speaker is definitely separating themselves from the definition of 'people' they are addressing.


Also, judging from media and my coworkers around the US, y'all has won. The northeasterners use it the least, but do use it some. The west, south, and central all use it equally.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:02 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Totally on the y'all train--as a native of the American south, I just kept using 'y'all' un-self-consciously when I moved to the midwest and then settled in California. Without much of an accent otherwise, it's never seemed terribly noticeable, but my colleagues and students absolutely adopt its use, often without even realizing it, because it just solves many of these concerns (even my long-time, language-finicky, vocalist colleague from Brazil uses 'y'all', and my Dutch-American wife thinks it's one of the best words in the English language).

One magnificent form hasn't been mentioned yet, I don't think, the gloriously plural-possessive to address a large group: 'all y'all'ses.' My own introduction to that was as a teenager, on some kind of school/church road trip, at a lunch stop in a Pizza Hut in Alabama: "HEY! All y'all'ses pizzas are ready!!"
posted by LooseFilter at 8:03 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


The prime example is the polite word for 'please'/'thank you', alstublieft, which directly translates to '[t]here you are'.

My understanding is that 'alstublieft' is a contraction of 'als het u belieft' lit. 'if it you pleases'.
posted by Dim Siawns at 8:08 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


This is really interesting. But, also, I can't remember ever hearing anybody use that specific phrase, despite growing up with "guys" as the default plural "you." Is this a regional thing, or have I just not been paying enough attention?

I've also never heard of or considered the word "transgendered."
posted by eotvos at 8:12 AM on August 26


“Transgendered” is kind of missing the mark a tad but I’ve got gotten good at ignoring how it irritates.
posted by noiseanoise at 8:15 AM on August 26


Just so we're clear about what you're saying here: you suggest that it is "prescriptive" to state that "guys" is male, and is heard as male by a broad section of people. Do I understand correctly?

Weird hill to try to die on, Inire.


i'd thought i was engaging (glibly, true) in a discussion of the substance of the article, but this is in any case a hummock / flesh wound situation at most.

i was suggesting that a number of commenters seemed to be eliding meaning and impact, which are two distinct things.

it is prescriptive to say (as a blanket statement) that 'guys' in the phrase 'you guys' is gendered male regardless of the speaker's meaning / intention or the listener's understanding. since it is apparent that a broad section of people do not use or understand it as such, per the article, and so (from a descriptivist perspective) it can be and is used and understood by many people as a gender neutral term.

from the same descriptivist perspective, it is also true that many other people do use and understand 'you guys' as a male gendered term.

the take away from this, if you're descriptivist-inclined, is that 'you guys' has different meanings. not that it has one, male gendered meaning that those using it as a non-gendered phrase have simply ignored or failed to understand, which is a crustily prescriptivist view of the sort that metafilter tends to loudly disdain in other contexts and which i was therefore surprised to see here (hence my comment).

the impact of those different meanings in different contexts is a related but distinct question, and it's obviously correct that in certain contexts 'you guys' will be understood in a gendered and therefore exclusionary way. in other contexts, not. the insistence that 'you guys' simply must be harmful regardless of the context and shared understanding of the user and the audience rests on the assumption that 'guys' must always inescapably be gendered male. which is prescriptivist, and wrong.

i incline towards the view in the link for my own day to day speech, but that's probably because i am in a context where 'you guys' is used very widely (not just by men, or cis people) as a gender neutral term. in a different context, where the term seemed to have a different gendered meaning or other terms were used (or if someone appeared uncomfortable with it), i'd take a different approach.
posted by inire at 8:21 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


it is prescriptive to say (as a blanket statement) that 'guys' in the phrase 'you guys' is gendered male regardless of the speaker's meaning / intention. since it is apparent that a broad section of people do not use or understand it as such, per the article, and so (from a descriptivist perspective) it can be and is used and understood by many people as a gender neutral term.

The author insists that "mankind" and "guys" are gendered male despite many people not using or understanding it as such, so the article is also prescriptive, just picking and choosing which to be prescriptive about.
posted by brook horse at 8:24 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


"y'uns" (the last one being so far as I can tell a contraction of "you ones" used in a small region of northwest Arkansas around Searcy county, though I would not be surprised if it popped up elsewhere. I first encountered it on a school bus on the first day of school one year when I was about eleven years old. My brother and I were the new kids, and the other kids asked us "Where do y'uns live?" to which we replied, "what?". After a couple iterations of that, during which I briefly wondered if this were some strange hillbilly riddle, I finally realized that "y'uns" was their version of "y'all". So we told them. We were then told, "Y'uns talk funny.". Oh, okay.)

I grew up on a farm in rural East Tennessee, where I heard both "y'all" and "y'uns". The latter mostly came from people in my grandparents' generation. There was a subtle difference in the way they used "y'all" and "y'uns". "Y'all" means "you all", or all of you people I can see who I am talking to. BUT, it was used when there was no discernible kinship bonds between the members of the addressed group. "Y'uns" is a contraction of "You and yours", meaning you and your family, tribe, or clan.

For example:

If I see a group of unknown people messing with my truck, I will exclaim, "Y'all better quit messing with my truck!"

If I see the Briar boys messing with my truck, I will address the eldest brother and say "Y'uns better quit messing with my truck!"

In the example above, there was a kinship bond present (the poster and their brother), thus "y'uns" was the proper pronoun.

I have not heard "y'uns" used this way in decades. Even back home in East Tennessee, it's all y'all, all the time.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:25 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


The author insists that "mankind" and "guys" are gendered male despite many people not using or understanding it as such, so the article is also prescriptive, just picking and choosing which to be prescriptive about.

i'd read that as ignorant descriptivism (lack of awareness on the author's part that there are people who use the noun 'guys' - separate from the term 'your guys' - in a gender-neutral way), rather than prescriptivism ('guys' can only be correctly used as having a male gender), but it is indeed an oversight.
posted by inire at 8:28 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I'm glad you spoke up for "you guys's" for the possessive, Mchelly. I was starting to wonder if I was in some sort of regional dialect speaker group of one or something. Your guys's? Never.

Brief Dutch digression:
vacapinta: for a while, I was trying to make j'all (as a contraction of 'jullie allemaal') happen. Never caught on, for some reason... can't imagine why...

BTW, Cardinal Fang, alstublieft, 'als het u blieft,' literally means 'if it pleases you.' (The verb blieven means to want/be pleased by, you could use it like lusten or willen). But you're right that figuratively, when someone's handing you something, it does mean basically 'here you go.' If you come to The Hague, we'll take away any verb confusion over that by shortening it to just straight up 'alstu' (don't worry, we will promptly replace it with confusion over Plat Haags, jôh).

posted by sldownard at 8:31 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


i'd read that as ignorant descriptivism (lack of awareness on the author's part that there are people who use the noun 'guys' - separate from the term 'your guys' - in a gender-neutral way), rather than prescriptivism ('guys' can only be correctly used as having a male gender), but it is indeed an oversight.

Not to turn this into a 1-on-1 conversation, but she definitely knows:
Next up, the vocative Guys!, as in “Guys! Over here!” I find this slightly less gender-specific than the guys, but still defaulting to male reference and therefore excluding me, a non-masculine human. But I also I know that a lot of people use this in a non-gender-specific way, because I have occasionally twitched when someone used it to hail me.
posted by brook horse at 8:33 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I offer up markedness theory and kind of straddling the EMACS vs VI, I’m sorry, TASTES GREAT, LESS FILLING, I’m sorry prescriptivist/descriptivist divide:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markedness
posted by noiseanoise at 8:34 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


It's good to see some appreciation for "y'all" here.

It's emblematic of the way that southerners are discounted that the "When will English come up with a gender neutral second person plural?" conversation is always coming up. This always happens, despite the southern United States having had one since before anyone can remember that is simple and easy and everyone already understands.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:34 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]


As someone who grew up in the U.S. South, the distinction I've always drawn between "y'all" and "all y'all" is different from what others have described in this thread. While they are both plural*, one is not more plural than the other. If I want to refer to a group of people I'm talking to, I'm mostly gonna us "y'all," which works even if I consider myself generally a part of that group of people. If I use "all y'all," I am either trying to make it really clear that I'm NOT part of that group, or, since "y'all" might mean some of the group or the whole group, I'm using "all y'all" to not have to say "this means you" to every single person in the group.

*I don't care if non-Southerners want to use "y'all." In fact, I think it's great. (I'm in camp "you guys" is gendered, and "yinz/you'uns" is just never gonna be part of my idiolect.) But if you use it to refer to an individual, and you are not from the South**, I will think you are a jerk.
**It does happen that a speaker of a Southern dialect will use a singular "y'all," but it's super rare in my experience. For every one time I've heard it used without irony by a Southerner, there have been fifty times I've heard a non-Southerner use it that way solely to mock Southerners.
posted by solotoro at 8:41 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


I'm using "all y'all" to not have to say "this means you" to every single person in the group.

This is the closest explanation I have seen to how I use "all y'all" and how I have customarily seen it used.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:46 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


"y'all" is objectively a great word and perfectly fills its niche, but as a Midwesterner, it does feel weird rolling off the tongue, and at least in Iowa when I was growing up, the folks who used "y'all" and/or put on a drawl always seemed to be doing so to claim some sort of kinship to the South in a way that I always felt uncomfortable with (i.e. they also tended to be the people with Confederate flag shit on their jacked-up suburban pickups). I try to use "gang", "friends", "team", "folks" as replacements for "you guys" (all of which make me feel a little like an over-enthusiastic little league coach or youth pastor from time to time).

It did strike me as strange that the article tries to draw a distinction between "mankind" and "you guys" and "Guys!", because to my mind they're all pretty much doing the same thing: making a pretense towards gender neutrality in the form of a masculine default. If the difference is "I'm desensitized to this one, but not to that one", there really isn't a difference in their nature, just in your reaction.
posted by protocoach at 8:47 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


I agree with solotoro, "all y'all" is not "y'all" but more; I was trying to think about when I use it (aside from the inclusive use: I want all y'all to come (not just some of you)) and I kept thinking its when I am annoyed with more than one person. Solotoro's explanation clicks: I am distancing myself from the group I am annoyed with or mad at.
posted by os tuberoes at 8:47 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Bjorkman is tentative in her thinking, says "I do try to avoid using you guys when speaking publicly to an audience whose linguistic background I don’t know," and notes that she wants to hear from experimental linguists to learn more evidence. There's a lot of "for now" and similar phrasing in how she discusses her current conclusions. So, linguists who disagree with Bjorkman, I think she wants to hear from you.

People talking about how "those guys" or "a guy" feels different from "you guys/hey guys" might be interested in the Julia Evans-led survey I linked in the post.

brook horse wrote: The linguistic analysis is interesting but the whole argument for not changing "you guys" comes down to, "I'm not bothered by it so you shouldn't be either, or at least if you are I don't care."

brook horse, where does she suggest that other people should not be bothered, or indicate that she does not care whether others are bothered? She writes "I’m interested in knowing where other people have landed on this".
posted by brainwane at 8:49 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


she definitely knows

i saw that, but had assumed she was talking about the vocative use specifically there - i was thinking of the later bit where she refers to "the masculine denotation of the noun guy as a matter of grammar", which reads as a very broad statement of bald fact. not really clear on how / where she's drawing boundaries between different uses (probably because i'm not a linguist).

"You lot" always feels aggressive and very othering. "The lot of you" has similar connotations.

interesting. in the context i'm familiar with, there's a very sharp contextual turn from using 'you lot' with reference to a group of people you know in an informal context (where it comes across as friendly) and using it with reference to a group of people you are not familiar with or connected to (as most commonly used by e.g. white racists shouting at perceived foreigners on the tube) where it is very much contemptuous, othering and hostile.
posted by inire at 8:53 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


An interesting thing about the resistance to "y'all" is that much of the resistance to it outside of the south seems to come from white people who do not want to sound like people they associate with racism. Thing is though: "y'all" is pretty woven into AAVE nationwide in the US.

And so, you have white people outside of the south who won't use a word their Black non-southern neighbors use because they don't want to sound like white southerners.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:53 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


Y’all are the best, and “y’all” is the best.
posted by TedW at 8:53 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


“You guys” doesn’t make masculine the default because “guys” evolved from masculine to neutral long ago.

The ship on "guys" being gender neutral has sailed so far and long that it's probably on it's 2nd or 3rd trip around the globe.

My daughter is 10, and the amount of times she has heard or said "hey guys"! from/to other girls on just Youtube videos alone is way in to the 5 or 6 figures. She and her girl friends call each other bro and bruh allllll the time. In fact, the last time us old people on MetaFilter starting tut-tuting that "guys" were male, I went over and asked her what she thought and I might as well have told her that people online though our front lawn and our spa were also considered male.
posted by sideshow at 8:54 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


"Y'all" would risk sounding like a ludicrous affectation where I am, unless the speaker was obviously from the US. I still prefer it to the wretched "folks", though.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:54 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


brook horse, where does she suggest that other people should not be bothered, or indicate that she does not care whether others are bothered? She writes "I’m interested in knowing where other people have landed on this".

My characterization was a bit hyperbolic, but my point is that her only evidence for why "you guys" is gender-neutral while "guys" and "mankind" are not is by calling to her specific experiences. She doesn't delineate between "guys" and "you guys" in any fashion other than "one bothers me, the other doesn't." The linguistic analysis, while interesting, isn't actually relevant to the question of whether it's excluding people. While she doesn't say this explicitly, the implication is clearly that she will continue to use this because she is not bothered by it, despite other people clearly having told her they are bothered by it.
posted by brook horse at 9:04 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Like, she asks for people's perspectives--on whether there's evidence that you guys "skews masculine." Not whether people are bothered by it or not. People have told her they're bothered. That's not enough, though. She needs evidence that it is used in a gendered way more often than not or she will continue to use it, whether or not people are bothered.
posted by brook horse at 9:12 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


IIRC Rita Moreno hollering this on the Electric Company was gender neutral.
posted by brujita at 9:17 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


point of interest re the degree to which 'man' can be gendered in multicultural london english:

"note on gender: the referent of the pronoun in its definite personal use seems to be restricted for most speakers to male individuals [...] In the generic impersonal use, female individuals are not excluded from the potential reference of the pronoun. I do not have examples of female speakers using the pronoun in the first person, or in the third person referring to other females, but have been told anecdotally that colleagues have heard such use in London. It’s possible that there is an ongoing change in use of the pronoun among younger speakers such that it is being bleached of its gender completely, but since I do not have any data on this I cannot say anything interesting about it here, and I note that for speakers of my generation it is ill-formed with a female referent in its definite personal use."
posted by inire at 9:18 AM on August 26


I still think "y'all" is one of the southern US's greatest contributions to civilization and we're still proud to share it with y'all!
posted by a Rrose by any other name at 9:33 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


An interesting thing about the resistance to "y'all" is that much of the resistance to it outside of the south seems to come from white people who do not want to sound like people they associate with racism. Thing is though: "y'all" is pretty woven into AAVE nationwide in the US.

And so, you have white people outside of the south who won't use a word their Black non-southern neighbors use because they don't want to sound like white southerners.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:53 AM on August 26


This resonates with me. I grew up in the U.S. north and attended college in the U.S. south a quarter century ago, an arrogant, ignorant, smug, white Yankee know-it-all dipshit from a small, deeply racist community. I only ever heard white students saying “y’all” and avoided the term predominantly for that reason. I didn’t want to appropriate a term I only ever heard from white southerners. That white 18-year-old from the Atlanta suburbs saying “y’all” could’ve been just like Bull Connor on the inside, for all I knew! Thank God I wasn’t one of those southern racists! You may be unsurprised that my experience with AAVE wasn’t extensive.
posted by cheapskatebay at 9:33 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I quite the Bislama yufala: pidgin for 'you fellows' -- used when addressing 2+ people.

More Bislama that I vaguely remember:
Yumi: you and me -- includes the speaker and the 1 person to whom they are speaking
Yumi olgeta: you and me all together -- includes the speaker and any number of addresses (olgeta generally indicates plural)
posted by orrnyereg at 9:43 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


"Youse" is very common in Philadelphian dialect and as it's gender neutral I'm making it a point to use it more often—and also because Philly is home, even though I have no plans to move back.

"Yinz" just sounds weird. Sorry, Pittsburghers. That's just not my jawn.
posted by SansPoint at 9:45 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


brook horse, I think I am reading her conclusion differently from how you are reading it, because she says she tries to avoid using "you guys" in public/with audiences where she does not know their linguistic preferences. So, I infer that she is ok using it in private/with friends, and if she found that someone was bothered, she would try to stop using it with them. I think she contrasts that with the higher level of effort appropriate to replacements and eradications she uses when speaking to *any* audience.

I myself avoid using "you guys/hey guys" and similar, in public and in private, and bristle a bit when it is used on a group that includes me. But this analysis is interesting to me partly because of the nuance: how much effort should I spend curating my spontaneous speech in private? And on what words/phrases? It could be that this is not particularly a thing that comes up for many of my neighbors in this thread, but it comes up for me.
posted by brainwane at 9:48 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I still prefer it to the wretched "folks", though.
Yes, I think the only person who can get away with using "folks" without making my skin crawl with the affectation of it all is Barack Obama. Or maybe if I knew someone to be an actual hillbilly.

I do think "y'all" is the obvious solution but I'm an Ohioan so will probably continue to use "you guys" until I die. I firmly believe it is now gender neutral, comme "ils", as are "dude", "man" and "bro/bruh" (for certain usages, of course).
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 9:55 AM on August 26


Brainwane, I can see how the conclusion could be read that way. My main problem is, again: she still delineates between "guys" and "you guys" and states that guys is always exclusionary while you guys is not. Same with "mankind." I'm basically saying she doesn't get to have it both ways: either they're both exclusionary and male-as-default, or they're not.

I don't actually care what she uses in private--I use guys/you guys with people I know are okay with that. But her article isn't about public vs private speech. She's trying to say there's something special about you guys, different from other male-as-default terms, that makes it "not masculine" in ways that don't apply to "guys" or "mankind." But the only evidence she has for that is "it doesn't bother me." Even though she caveats that with "but I won't use it in groups" she's still insisting that based on her cisgender experiences, one is gendered and the other isn't. I'd be happy to read an article on public vs. private speech and how gendered terms are used within that, but that's not what she wrote. She wrote about how "you guys" is special in the discussion of male-as-default terms, because she isn't bothered by it.

If she had argued that all of the terms were gender neutral, I would disagree with her but just assume she doesn't believe that intent =/= impact. But she explicitly acknowledges the exclusionary impacts of male-as-default terms... except this one, which she doesn't want to change because it doesn't bother her personally.
posted by brook horse at 10:00 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


I've been trying to remove "guys" from my speech for a while now. I hate it. I hate everything that is considered gender neutral in our speech that is actually male, "mankind" being the worst. All of this matters. How all genders are represented, even in our speech patterns, matters. I'm going to try even harder on this, thanks for the reminder!
posted by tiny frying pan at 10:06 AM on August 26 [10 favorites]


I'm equally fascinated by the rapid evolution of UK English's "innit".

The French equivalent n'est-ce pas has been in use depuis des lustres.


IIUC (which I don't, because I fundamentally don't grok particles on some basic level) Japanese has "ne" for "don't you agree, person I'm talking to?" and "na" for "don't I agree with myself?"

As for "you guys," my bar for male-coded language is "would I feel weird about saying this to a friend who like just transitioned & is out at brunch in a dress & lipstick for the first time ever?" If so then I personally would prefer not to drop it on strangers, whether or not it's inherently male or inherently neutral.

I like "y'all." Probably sounds real weird in my Wisconsin accent but I justify it by having lived in Atlanta for (checks watch) six months once
posted by taquito sunrise at 10:07 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


Solotoro's explanation clicks: I am distancing myself from the group I am annoyed with or mad at.

Yeah, to me "all y'all" implies that none of the addressed people are escaping judgement.

For those wanting to avoid "guys" but not comfortable with "y'all", there's always "cats", "comrades", "mortals" or "beltalowda"...
posted by Foosnark at 10:11 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


I'm here to defend the use of "folks."

As I mentioned upthread, I'm working a (sorta weird) retail job where I need to interact with customers of all kinds all the time. It took me a while to come out of my shell and be familiar with all our products and the care needed for the products. But I find myself using the term "folks" quite often.

As a stranger approaching customers, "Are you folks finding everything OK?" or "You folks have any questions?" etc., seems the friendliest, most accommodating and least intimidating way to approach people. To my ear, it puts the customer on the same level as me— the ~50 year old worker— without sounding "othering" or condescending. Especially since many of my customers are much older than me, or much younger. Mostly white, but people of all colors and also lots of LGBTQ people. I wouldn't even think of saying "Do you guys need any help?" as it feels way too personal... like I know them.

Nothing wrong with "folks!" It sounds polite, friendly but not too personal. It also sounds like a voice representing the store where I work, versus just "me" talking to them, but in a positive way.
posted by SoberHighland at 10:18 AM on August 26 [13 favorites]


> My daughter is 10, and the amount of times she has heard or said "hey guys"! from/to other girls on just Youtube videos alone is way in to the 5 or 6 figures.

"hey guys!" previously, people (but not you people ;)
posted by kliuless at 10:21 AM on August 26


I feel like "guys" has become gender neutral in most popular usage, but that doesn't change the fact that this only happened because people think it's fine for "men terms" to be broadly applied to mixed-gender groups but "women terms" never are.

This might mean that "guys" feels gender neutral to us now, but the process by which those kinds of language changes happen is rooted in sexism imo. Like it's meaningful that "guys" and not "girls/gals/ladies" is the term that came to feel like the natural way to address a group.

It reminds me of the feeling I had when first learning in French class that when just one man is in a group, you address the entire group with the masculine pronoun.
posted by Emily's Fist at 10:31 AM on August 26 [20 favorites]


The original post could have made more explicit the official linguistics rules for compound nouns. (Compound nouns, being things like "attorney general".) Despite the shared word, the phrase "you guys" is distinct from "guys", and their meanings can be differentiated. There are phrases/word pairs that are harder to mix up, eg "bus stop" and "stop".

The problem with the phrase "you guys" though, is just how easily it is to slip and say "guys", which (imo) is gendered. Fortunately "you guys" is a colloqualism anyway, so other phrases like "fam" or "peeps" are also available, among others, to make it easier to avoid using "guys" when a gender non-specific word is preferable. Retrofitting a language is hard! (But it's worth it)

I think the most important part of having this discussion here, is if it's correctly pronounced youse guys, or you guys. (We can all agree it's never youses guyses, right?)
posted by fragmede at 10:32 AM on August 26


she still delineates between "guys" and "you guys" and states that guys is always exclusionary while you guys is not. [...] I'm basically saying she doesn't get to have it both ways: either they're both exclusionary and male-as-default, or they're not.

[...] I use guys/you guys with people I know are okay with that.


i think the idea that 'either they're both exclusionary and male-as-default, or they're not' begs the question by assuming (prescriptively) that the word 'guys' is always male gendered, whether alone or in a phrase, regardless of context and however used and understood - which isn't the case.

she says "though I do try to avoid using you guys when speaking publicly to an audience whose linguistic background I don’t know, on balance I have not been convinced that the harm of you guys is enough to motivate the effort that would be needed to eliminate it from my speech entirely" - i.e. she steers clear of using it in uncertain contexts, where it's not completely clear that everyone's on the same page about it being gender neutral, but wants "compelling evidence that you guys skews a masculine interpretation even for those speakers who use it gender-nonspecifically" (i.e. that it harms even those who use and understand it as gender neutral) before eradicating it from her speech entirely.

in other words, she seems to be doing what you do - uses 'you guys' with people she knows are ok with it and / or view it as gender neutral - and doesn't intend to stop doing that unless she is shown evidence of that, specifically, being sufficiently harmful. which seems like a reasonable view, though not the only reasonable view, and one that she could have spelled out a bit more clearly.
posted by inire at 10:34 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I use “y’all” in my native dialect (white woman born and raised in the Southeastern US), but I find myself code-switching to “you guys” any time I am talking to mostly non-Southerners. It happens without conscious thought. I think I’m trying not to seem “too Southern.” Recently, I’ve been trying to catch myself and stop myself from using the gendered language.

Notes on usage of “y’all”:

“All y’all” is emphatic: it means “each and every one of you.”

The possessive of “y’all” is “y’all’s.” There is no “your all.”

If you overhear someone using “y’all” to address a single person, they are probably not actually using singular “y’all.” Instead, they are almost certainly referring to a group that person is part of, the other members of which are not present. For example, “Hey, Bob! How are y’all doing?” is most likely asking after Bob and his family, and will be answered with something like “Oh, we’re doing well! Joe just started a new job down the road in Chapel Hill, and the girls are doing virtual learning this year. How about y’all?”
posted by snowmentality at 10:36 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


I’m also a southerner who never really had much of an accent, but I’ve been actively incorporating y’all in favor of you guys for years now.
posted by uberchet at 10:42 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


i think the idea that 'either they're both exclusionary and male-as-default, or they're not' begs the question by assuming (prescriptively) that the word 'guys' is always male gendered, whether alone or in a phrase, regardless of context and however used and understood - which isn't the case.

I don't think it does assume that. She explicitly states that "guys" is not always male gendered (by the speaker, at least) and yet it excludes her anyway because it is male-as-default. "I find this slightly less gender-specific than the guys, but still defaulting to male reference and therefore excluding me, a non-masculine human. But I also I know that a lot of people use this in a non-gender-specific way, because I have occasionally twitched when someone used it to hail me" and " I’m someone who gets deeply annoyed whenever someone uses man to mean humanity..."

She finds it exclusionary even though she knows that some people don't use it in a gender-specific way. I really don't have a problem with how she seems to be using it--just that she felt she had to write a whole blog post to justify why she will, in private, use "you guys" but not "guys" or "man," when the reasons solely come down to "one bothers me but not the other" and yet it's presented as if it's the objective result of linguistic analysis and fact. If "you guys" doesn't bother you but you won't use it in public, okay? But don't try and justify that by saying there's not enough "evidence" of harm. That just comes across as invalidating the people who do find it harmful, especially when you at the same time claim that these other words ("guys" and "man") are exclusionary. (What's unclear to me is whether she thinks people should erase these from their private speech? The logical conclusion of how she's contrasting them with you guys would suggest that, but I don't know if she actually agrees with that or not.)
posted by brook horse at 10:50 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


When the topic of language inclusivity comes up, I've found that brief feelings of mild annoyance are often nothing more than chafing against the coarse boundaries and barriers inherent to all privilege. This should be contrasted against the legitimate harm caused by the sort of language, particularly institutionalized language, that excludes, diminishes, and dehumanizes. Personally, I try to keep this in mind as a sort of bias-check against myself.

Also, having lived in the US Southwest for a few decades, "y'all" has settled deep into my linguistic DNA and it features in both my speech and writing. The expanded "you all" makes sense as well, as do situational alternatives like "all of you", "both of you", "the three of you", "the group of you", etc. There are myriad diverse mechanisms to achieve exuviation of a domesticated feline, to which we can easily avail ourselves.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 10:51 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


Any other trans people here absolutely HATING this discussion but reading all of it in that perverse masochistic way? I'm glad that so many of you feel that the "ship has sailed" on this discussion and that "guys" has been known to be gender neutral for a long time. How nice.

Still, I find myself wondering why so many of us hate it so much then. I'm going to go ahead and keep on listening when marginalized people talk about things that bother them, and be mindful of my own language accordingly, since I know personally how much it sucks when people decide that actually that thing you hate shouldn't bother you because they didn't mean it that way!
posted by emirenic at 10:56 AM on August 26 [22 favorites]


She explicitly states that "guys" is not always male gendered (by the speaker, at least) and yet it excludes her anyway because it is male-as-default.

when she talks about feeling excluded, she's talking about the vocative use of 'guys' - which reads to her (in her context) as male gendered - not the second person plural 'you guys'. so the gendering and exclusion from the first does not automatically transfer to the second just because the same four letters are used, because the meaning of those four letters is different (for her and her context) because they're being used for a different purpose.

she is quite distinctly separating out different uses and meanings and understandings and impacts of the same four letters, which i imagine comes naturally to a linguist and less so to everyone else (hence the difficulty). others won't separate in the same way (or at all, necessarily), but that's how we end up with contexts where something is fine and contexts where it isn't.

relatedly, i'm trying to think of a semantic shift that was reversed, after being well under way, due to moral objections. surely there must have been at least one?
posted by inire at 11:02 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


An interesting thing about the resistance to "y'all" is that much of the resistance to it outside of the south seems to come from white people who do not want to sound like people they associate with racism. Thing is though: "y'all" is pretty woven into AAVE nationwide in the US.

And so, you have white people outside of the south who won't use a word their Black non-southern neighbors use because they don't want to sound like white southerners.


Yes and no. As someone literally on the line between the North and South (hello Mason-Dixon Line), I definitely avoid "y'all" because it sounds fake or affected coming out of my mouth. I'm not consciously trying to avoid sounding like a southern racist, but that might be happening subconsciously. (Also, as a recovering performer, I slip into accents too easily, and one "y'all" might lead to my sounding like Foghorn Leghorn.)

As for "y'all" in AAVE, that's something else I want to avoid as a white dude. There are plenty of Black colloquialisms that aren't mine to say -- I don't call someone "ashy" or say that someone "snatched her wig," for example. I would perceive that as cultural appropriation and I would sound ridiculous saying it. "Y'all" may be borderline, but it's certainly not about a desire to avoid sounding like a Black non-southerner (except in the general sense of trying to avoid saying something offensive).

On the main point, I definitely say "you guys" and will try to aim for "you all" instead.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:03 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]


Here is my advice for a hypothetical person insisting on calling women men! If you can't respect that certain people have excellent reasons to not want to be called "guy" or "dude" or what have you, here's some prescriptivism for you: stop talking to people. Stop talking about people. You're not ready yet. Your weird hangups about not wanting others to associate you with certain US states (???????) are not a license to call human beings whatever shit you want and minimize their discomfort.
posted by one for the books at 11:09 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


Any other trans people here absolutely HATING this discussion but reading all of it in that perverse masochistic way?

Yes. I think I dislike "you guys" particularly because it's ambiguous. How can I tell if the speaker is using it in an entirely gender neutral way, or is intending to subtly misgender me in a plausibly deniable way? Same with "but I call everyone dude" and similar things. Like, I'm not going to assume those people are transphobic, but it's going to get a more-or-less internal eyeroll and a mark against them until proved otherwise.
posted by death valley compound at 11:10 AM on August 26 [10 favorites]


she is quite distinctly separating out different uses and meanings and understandings and impacts of the same four letters, which i imagine comes naturally to a linguist and less so to everyone else (hence the difficulty). others won't separate in the same way (or at all, necessarily), but that's how we end up with contexts where something is fine and contexts where it isn't.

But she doesn't provide any evidence or reason why they're different other than "this one makes me twitch and the other one doesn't." That's my whole point.
posted by brook horse at 11:14 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


relatedly, i'm trying to think of a semantic shift that was reversed, after being well under way, due to moral objections. surely there must have been at least one?

Not sure if this counts, but I remember being taught in high school (by a female English teacher) that "his or her" or "he or she" was unnecessary (as in "An applicant must submit his or her application by Friday") because "he" and "his" are considered gender-neutral when referring to unknown people. That is certainly no longer the case.

But people also seem to have tired of "he or she" (aside from the fact that it excludes non-binary people), and now either avoid the pronoun entirely or use the singular "their."
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:16 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Hell yes. One doesn't get to decide for everyone, as said upthread, that this bothers me and that doesn't. If some people are bothered, be respectful and don't use the phrase as best you can.
posted by tiny frying pan at 11:17 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I definitely avoid "y'all" because it sounds fake or affected coming out of my mouth.

Precisely. It comes off as either appropriative or an aggravating affectation. Even though I spent 4 years in Pittsburgh I don't say "yinz." I did pick up "hella" and "the 80" from 11 years in California, though.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:17 AM on August 26


But people also seem to have tired of "he or she" (aside from the fact that it excludes non-binary people), and now either avoid the pronoun entirely or use the singular "their."

I once argued in college that nonbinary people were allowed to steal dishes for free from the dining hall because the rule said, "If a student removes dishes from the dining hall, he or she will be fined."
posted by brook horse at 11:19 AM on August 26 [19 favorites]


But she doesn't provide any evidence or reason why they're different other than "this one makes me twitch and the other one doesn't." That's my whole point.

because one's vocative and the other's second person plural. different grammatical meanings, which means for her (and for me) they have different functions and will land differently. like how 'your lot' when speaking to my friend is meant and understood as a casual reference to her family and 'your lot' when talking to a french person i don't know is (regardless of intended meaning) probably going to be understood as an othering reference to french people generally.

you don't need to share her view on that, but that just means you're operating in a different linguistic context (descriptivism again) not that she's somehow objectively wrong (prescriptivism).

the issue for somewhere like metafilter, and social media generally, is you don't necessarily know what contexts are present - how a phrase or word will be understood by everyone who might read it, and so whether it will cause harm. i wouldn't use 'you guys' on a public facebook page because i don't know the contexts in which the potential audience operate. i wouldn't use it here to refer to mefites, because i know very well (per this thread) that some people are operating in contexts where they'll find it offensive, so using it here risks causing harm. in a context where i know it won't cause harm because i know the audience, i'll use 'you guys' as a gender neutral second person plural, but wouldn't e.g. refer to a female friend as 'this guy' - same word, different grammatical meaning, lands differently (wrongly).

I once argued in college that nonbinary people were allowed to steal dishes for free from the dining hall because the rule said, "If a student removes dishes from the dining hall, he or she will be fined."

flawless
posted by inire at 11:27 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I once argued in college that nonbinary people were allowed to steal dishes for free from the dining hall because the rule said, "If a student removes dishes from the dining hall, he or she will be fined."

Actually, a plain reading of the rule suggests that if a non-binary person steals dishes, some other male or female person will be fined. Seems unfair to me. ;)
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:30 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I would argue that one should change it in ALL contexts, unless you're going to continually ask your friends and family who you think "don't mind" if they still don't. People can change how they feel.
posted by tiny frying pan at 11:32 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


(Also. I believe she is objectively wrong on this).
posted by tiny frying pan at 11:33 AM on August 26


I would argue that one should change it in ALL contexts, unless you're going to continually ask your friends and family who you think "don't mind" if they still don't. People can change how they feel.

yeah, i'm thinking of people who also regularly use it gender neutrally (which i think is sufficient evidence of not minding), but agree that one shouldn't assume silence = fine with it.

(Also. I believe she is objectively wrong on this).

shakes fist impotently
posted by inire at 11:38 AM on August 26


When the topic of language inclusivity comes up, I've found that brief feelings of mild annoyance are often nothing more than chafing against the coarse boundaries and barriers inherent to all privilege. This should be contrasted against the legitimate harm caused by the sort of language, particularly institutionalized language, that excludes, diminishes, and dehumanizes. Personally, I try to keep this in mind as a sort of bias-check against myself.

the issue for somewhere like metafilter, and social media generally, is you don't necessarily know what contexts are present - how a phrase or word will be understood by everyone who might read it, and so whether it will cause harm. i wouldn't use 'you guys' on a public facebook page because i don't know the contexts in which the potential audience operate. i wouldn't use it here to refer to mefites, because i know very well (per this thread) that some people are operating in contexts where they'll find it offensive, so using it here risks causing harm.

These are worth repeating. And it's worth emphasizing that we, as members of a theoretically welcoming community, don't have to feel compelled to engage in the mind-numbing hairsplitting and balancing of relative harms that a linguist like Bjorkman apparently feels like she has to do. If MeFites are saying that this language harms them, as quite a few have said in this very thread, others within the community who have chosen to use that language should make every effort to immediately expunge the use of that language from their communications within the site. And arguably elsewhere, too, of course, but certainly within Metafilter itself. To do otherwise is contrary to the site guidelines, common decency, and basic kindness. It's not like we haven't had this conversation eleven billion times already, as seanmpuckett said more eloquently than I upthread. It still sucks to see it happen over and over again.
posted by cheapskatebay at 11:40 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


I think a lot of AFAB people were told from an early age that we just had to get used to being called “guys” and (dating myself here) to suck it up about the universal “he/him/his” and “Dear sirs” and “man(kind),” because that was Just The Way It Was. We have had decades of desensitizing, whereas our trans sisters and NB siblings are experiencing a very real and fresh sting from a pronoun that’s decidedly not gender-affirming. We were told long ago to pick our battles; they’re right that this is one worth picking.

And yes, this is part and parcel of how internalized misogyny works — but also of how societal and institutional misogyny works. I agree with the remark upthread: if I’m out with women friends and a man approaches us, I will judge him by the way he addresses us.

You guys signals that he sees us as people — after all, if mankind is synonymous with humanity, this is default, right? But it’s non-threatening to me. Again, doesn’t mean anyone else should be comfortable with it.

You ladies is a yellow flag, potentially patronizing not in its essence, but in the way most men use it. Once a guy performatively corrected himself, “Ladies — excuse me — I mean, women!” Cue mock that-was-close brow-wipe. Creep.

You girls is a red flag, obviously. And in my part of the country, it happens all the damn time. It’s especially threatening from straight cis men, but nobody else gets a pass unless we are on unique and familiar terms — like a sports team, or a sorority, and even then only maybe.

And a true gender-neutral seems way beyond anyone’s provincial sensibilities, despite the countless good examples available in other regions. There are a lot of cultural, class, and cohort layers to this.
posted by armeowda at 11:41 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


Scene: Earth, overlaid with the word misogyny and two astronauts, one behind the other

Astronaut 1: "You mean it's about the misogyny?"
Astronaut 2: (pointing a gun at Astronaut 1): "Always has been..."
posted by noiseanoise at 11:44 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]


As a stranger approaching customers, "Are you folks finding everything OK?" or "You folks have any questions?" etc., seems the friendliest, most accommodating and least intimidating way to approach people. To my ear, it puts the customer on the same level as me— the ~50 year old worker— without sounding "othering" or condescending.

I appreciate this take but my own experience differs. "Folks" brings to mind for me the police officer who is moving gawkers away from a crime scene... "nothing to see here, folks, move along." The power imbalance and not-so-subtle threat of menace is evident in that context. Thank you, SoberHighland, for giving me another viewpoint to consider.
posted by cheapskatebay at 11:44 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


because one's vocative and the other's second person plural. different grammatical meanings, which means for her (and for me) they have different functions and will land differently. like how 'your lot' when speaking to my friend is meant and understood as a casual reference to her family and 'your lot' when talking to a french person i don't know is (regardless of intended meaning) probably going to be understood as an othering reference to french people generally.

I can see how that argument could be made, but she didn't really say that in the article--she kept referring back to "one bothers me, the other doesn't." Her arguments are: 1) it is used to refer to all female groups (also true of guys), 2) it doesn't bother me (not true of guys for her, but true for many others). She didn't explain why the vocative lands differently than a pronoun, just that it does. Why is one definitely, obviously exclusionary, but the other there's just not enough evidence for it? Maybe that's self-evident to linguists, but I don't see how it being a pronoun suddenly makes it not defaulting to male-as-reference.

Actually, a plain reading of the rule suggests that if a non-binary person steals dishes, some other male or female person will be fined. Seems unfair to me. ;)

I'm okay with this because cis people wouldn't let us have a gender-neutral bathroom in the dining hall, so. Restitution. (Well, that's not totally true. They made the kitchen staff bathroom gender-neutral. Then whenever a student tried to use it, they said, "You aren't allowed to be back here.")
posted by brook horse at 11:51 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


English used to have a second person plural: you. At that point second person singular was thee/thou.

Since I doubt anyone will agree to start using thee again, I would love to see something like y'all become the official second person plural.
posted by duoshao at 11:55 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


She didn't explain why the vocative lands differently than a pronoun, just that it does. Why is one definitely, obviously exclusionary, but the other there's just not enough evidence for it? Maybe that's self-evident to linguists, but I don't see how it being a pronoun suddenly makes it not defaulting to male-as-reference.

got you. i think she's glided over various things on the assumption people will understand they're there (as have i, sorry). one of those things is that it can be very clear (for some people, operating in a particular context) that a word lands differently when used in different grammatical ways, even if you can't explain why that is - we know what feels right linguistically for us, even if we can't explain why.

goes back, again, to descriptivism / prescriptivism - you don't need to justify or explain how and why a term has a particular meaning for you by reference to some theoretically objective standard of correct language use, or at all - its use is (once sufficiently common) its own justification.

she's diagnosing something, pointing to the fact that for her (and unspoken but evident from this thread, for many others as well) there is a difference between the vocative and second person plural uses. she doesn't prescribe a reason for that or seek to explain why that is, because it's irrelevant for the purposes of her argument - for her and a group of others, it's a fact. for a different group, it isn't. both of those things are fine independently, but the difference leads to friction and potential harm when the groups interact. it would be interesting to look more deeply at why the difference arose, but you don't need to do that to acknowledge that it exists and (if you're a descriptivist) that its existence is value neutral (even if its impact sometimes isn't).
posted by inire at 12:15 PM on August 26


The other problem with "you guys" is that it makes y'all sound like snooty yankees. ;)

Or possibly Sloth from The Goonies.
posted by Mayor West at 12:15 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I actually think I encounter women using "you guys" and "guys" (as direct forms of address) in a gender-neutral fashion more than I encounter men doing it.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:25 PM on August 26


goes back, again, to descriptivism / prescriptivism - you don't need to justify or explain how and why a term has a particular meaning for you by reference to some theoretically objective standard of correct language use, or at all - its use is (once sufficiently common) its own justification.

If we continue to ignore the linguistic functions of markedness and focus only on prescriptivist/descriptivist camps we are not looking at this with enough range to really invite everyone into this discussion.
posted by noiseanoise at 12:26 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Here is my advice for a hypothetical person insisting on calling women men!

Wanted to apologize for this part of my previous comment. Obviously non-binary people are also erased by this kind of language, not just women, and I was in error not to include them.
posted by one for the books at 12:27 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]



I actually think I encounter women using "you guys" and "guys" (as direct forms of address) in a gender-neutral fashion more than I encounter men doing it.


The patriarchy affects us all.
posted by tiny frying pan at 12:31 PM on August 26 [9 favorites]


Inire, she's not just diagnosing it. Again, I don't care how "you guys" feels to her. I care about her using that to then say, "This is not harmful enough to be worth changing." She explicitly decides to determine whether "you guys" causes "enough harm" to justify trying to change it. Her conclusion is that it doesn't cause enough harm, but that conclusion is not based on any attempts to analyze or quantify the harm it causes to other people. It is only based on the fact that she is not bothered by it. She does not acknowledge that, as a cis woman, she may not be harmed by the phrase the same way as trans or nonbinary people. She didn't seek out their opinions. She didn't even acknowledge that their opinions might be relevant. But she felt comfortable saying, "There's not enough evidence that it's harmful," based solely on her experience as a cisgender woman.

If it's prescriptivist to say, "Maybe you should ask the people most harmed by this language before making pronouncements about whether it's harmful or not," well, I guess I'm a prescriptivist.
posted by brook horse at 12:34 PM on August 26 [7 favorites]


I think viewing the discussion as a matter of harm/not harm has to also discuss the willingness of people who are horizontal on the sex binary to take up the effort of undoing internalized misogyny and giving up the devil’s bargain they willingly maintain by accepting the benevolence of patriarchy.
posted by noiseanoise at 12:51 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


Seems like in this thread the willingness is not there.
posted by noiseanoise at 12:52 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


“You guys” is deprecated along with calling people “dude.”

Honestly, honestly, HONESTLY y’all when people tell you something reinforces harmful social patterns and is harmful to them personally and all it takes is finding another filler phrase? Just find another filler phrase. Your identity will not collapse because you chose kindness.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:01 PM on August 26 [17 favorites]


When respecting women and trans people devolves into a discussion of the vocative, you know you have a problem.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:11 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


Totally, accepting unmarked language as a descriptor does nothing to actually the address the underlying issues of women being marked in every way. It’s letting men off the hook which while “nice” works in the short term while punting the harms of Markedness into the future.

I also understand that our capacity to address all the harms in the world is limited. So I’m not making a demand on anyone, I’m just seeing if we’re willing to address and identify the underlying social mechanisms at play here. Maybe that’s a big ask as well. If so I’ll adjust my expectations accordingly.
posted by noiseanoise at 1:18 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I hate "y'all" with a passion when it is used by someone not from an area where that is part of the native dialect. I get that the train is moving in the direction of y'allsville and there is no point in fighting it, but in my experience it is predominantly used in a patronizing manner or when someone is trying to get "chummy."

I do wonder how you'd take it from me. I grew up in the South, and it comes naturally to me...but I've been told many times that I do not have anything resembling what is usually considered a Southern accent, so that fact isn't particularly apparent.
posted by Four Ds at 1:21 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Guys has been degendered, y'all has always been ungendered. There's a difference.
posted by noiseanoise at 1:25 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Honestly, honestly, HONESTLY y’all when people tell you something reinforces harmful social patterns and is harmful to them personally and all it takes is finding another filler phrase? Just find another filler phrase. Your identity will not collapse because you chose kindness.

When respecting women and trans people devolves into a discussion of the vocative, you know you have a problem.


I completely agree with all of this, but I have an honest question as a cis man trying to be better. I'm struggling with how to word it, so I apologize in advance for any insensitivities.

Since neither women nor trans people are monolithic in their beliefs and impressions, what proportion of a marginalized group must object to something before it is considered offensive? If one member of a marginalized group (or 5, or 10, or 1000) finds Word A troubling or offensive, and the rest disagree, do we respect the wishes of the smaller group, the larger group, or what?

I'm thinking, for example, of when white people were wearing safety pins after Trump's election as a show of solidarity with immigrants and other marginalized people. The marginalized people I saw on social media at the time was about half and half between appreciating the gesture and finding it offensive (or at least lazy). So the practice sort of died out quickly because the response was unclear.

Obviously, "you guys" is not a hill to die on for any of us. I'm not going to tell anyone they shouldn't object to or be offended by it. But at the same time, I'm not going to tell my wife that she has internalized misogyny whenever she says it.

So what do you think? My initial thought is that, if anyone is hurt or offended by a word or a practice, we should cut it out. But there also may be situations in which other members of that same group may believe that the person who is hurt or offended is overreacting, misinformed, or otherwise expressing an opinion that is not shared by the rest of the group.

Again, I'm going to try not to say "you guys," since there are plenty of phrases that work just as well, but I'm really curious what you all (*wink*) think about these questions.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 1:32 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I decided a couple of years back to err on the side of inclusivity and use "guys" and "dudes" much less, and "people," "folks" and "y'all" more. It's not been difficult to make the switch and also it's effectively the same rhetorically, so.
posted by jscalzi at 1:36 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


She explicitly decides to determine whether "you guys" causes "enough harm" to justify trying to change it. Her conclusion is that it doesn't cause enough harm, but that conclusion is not based on any attempts to analyze or quantify the harm it causes to other people.

i agree that would be extremely objectionable, if she were talking about using the phrase regardless of context. i thought she explicitly said she wasn't doing that and is trying to determine what harm (if any) arises in situations where everyone else shares her view (i.e. where the other people who could be harmed by it are not there in the physical or virtual conversation to be harmed). that doesn't get into the question of how far a specifically gender-neutral understanding of that term reinforces one's internal misogyny and so results in harm to you and future indirect harm to others outside the conversation (lots? some? homeopathic levels? not at all?), but perhaps that's for another time (or not, i don't mind).

When respecting women and trans people devolves into a discussion of the vocative, you know you have a problem.

when the post is literally about a linguist's view on when / how disrespect and harm arise from the fine distinctions of language use in different contexts to different audiences, and reflects a widespread but patchy semantic shift in language use between groups that can't be characterised as 'ignorant men' vs 'everyone else', i think it's fair to discuss the subject of the post, and any disagreements that become apparent. evidently i don't have the mental wherewithal to work my way to the preferred conclusion that 'gender neutral use of guys is always bad everywhere, context is irrelevant, never do it, the end', which i accept is my own failure.
posted by inire at 1:36 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


An interesting thing about the resistance to "y'all" is that much of the resistance to it outside of the south seems to come from white people who do not want to sound like people they associate with racism. Thing is though: "y'all" is pretty woven into AAVE nationwide in the US.

And so, you have white people outside of the south who won't use a word their Black non-southern neighbors use because they don't want to sound like white southerners.


I think I associate southern culture with Christianity, and I don't want to sound Christian.
posted by the_blizz at 1:39 PM on August 26


I find it very strange to hear (here at Metafilter of all places!) so many arguments that "you guys" is gender neutral and does not indicate that males are the default humans. Like it literally is taking a masculine and using it to describe a group of people no matter their gender. This is definitely one to add to the list of terms that everyone uses but is actually kind of sexist. (I even use it myself, hey its the water we swim in). It is only when this is recognized that we can move on to better expressions.

For real. WTF Metafilter?!

If you really think "you guys" is gender neutral, try this quick and easy test: switch to "you gals" or "you ladies." Still comfortable with that phrase? Still feel gender neutral? If not, hmmm, why could that be?
posted by medusa at 1:47 PM on August 26 [9 favorites]


Any other trans people here absolutely HATING this discussion but reading all of it in that perverse masochistic way? I'm glad that so many of you feel that the "ship has sailed" on this discussion and that "guys" has been known to be gender neutral for a long time. How nice.

I'm cis and queer and I'm right there with you. Cis straight men think they get to decide what's gender neutral? Fuck that.
posted by medusa at 2:14 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


I grew up being told that he/him/mankind/etc was gender neutral and was so resentful of it (and learning two other languages which had generic-male, groups being called "he" if there was at least one male, etc), that by the time I was in undergrad in linguistics I absolutely refused to read "everyone returned to his seat" as ambiguous and got in fights. (In the long run, I won.) And I continue the fight with guys/you guys. People who make the effort not to say it in front of me -- which is something I appreciate -- also have noted that they start using it less in general. I understand that some people believe they don't interpret it as gendered, but I would bet significant sums that if they were studied, it would be found to be gendered.

A bunch of 10ish year old girls who use guys could be that it's really going to change -- I don't think it will, but that's me -- or it could be that they are young enough that they haven't experienced enough misogyny to find it objectionable and they might change their speech in the future.

I don't say y'all, it doesn't feel natural to me, but I hope that it will take over more as an option. I like folks, except when it's spelled folx, which grates on my nerves. I usually use everyone, except when speaking to pets, when I switch to assholes/bunnies depending on how much trouble they are causing.
posted by jeather at 2:15 PM on August 26 [9 favorites]


I have always thought of "dude" as very definitely male but have just recently heard it used to refer to women several times on TV shows.

As far as "you guys," I too hear it as gender neutral but since it offends others, I try to avoid it.

Can't say I always succeed though I agree it is the right of the listener to determine its offensiveness.

And it isn't, in my opinion, a legitimate comparison to wonder if substituting "girls" or "ladies" changes people's minds about the gender neutrality of it. The point is that some people believe "you guys" is in its own category of usage, even if it didn't start out as truly gender neutral.
posted by etaoin at 2:49 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


The ship on "guys" being gender neutral has sailed so far and long that it's probably on it's 2nd or 3rd trip around the globe.

This was (and among some people still is) true about using "lame" or "gay" as pejoratives. For some people that usage was dead metaphor. They were sometimes genuinely used with no thought of the people that those words had sometimes referred to. That doesn't make the usage harmless or impossible to change.
posted by straight at 2:49 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I'm genuinely dismayed to hear some people find "folks" off-putting, though. I was thinking Obama had normalized it and that it had friendly connotations.
posted by straight at 2:54 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I completely agree with all of this, but I have an honest question

In the sense of social and linguistic markedness it’s important to understand what is marked versus what is unmarked and how that/who which is unmarked is placed into a higher position of a hierarchy. The degree to which you want to maintain that hierarchy is entirely up to yourself since you are a cis man (by default unmarked). I can’t create a mathematical function to apply to this to help you. You have to decide for yourself how complicit you want to be.

Now within the broad category of “cis man” exists a lot of lateral violence with men marking other cis men and damaging the shit out of each other, so this conversation is not just about “cis men” and everyone else. We’re all being damaged by markedness.
posted by noiseanoise at 2:55 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Somehow I think the quote from the recent Dolly Parton piece is relevant here, as she discussed changing the name of one of her park's rides from "The Dixie Stampede" to "The Stampede", emphasis mine.

“When they said ‘Dixie’ was an offensive word, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to offend anybody. This is a business. We’ll just call it The Stampede.’ As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.”
posted by hijinx at 2:58 PM on August 26 [12 favorites]


This was (and among some people still is) true about using "lame" or "gay" as pejoratives. For some people that usage was dead metaphor. They were sometimes genuinely used with no thought of the people that those words had sometimes referred to. That doesn't make the usage harmless or impossible to change.

What continues to surprise me is the lack (as far as I can tell) of antipathy towards "that blows" and "that sucks."
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 2:59 PM on August 26


@ sldownard & Dim Siawns: You are right, of course. 'There you are' isn't the direct translation. In my experience it's how the Dutch usually rendered it to me in English.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 3:32 PM on August 26


I gotta jump in after reading several comments about using "y'all" being cultural appropriation, because y'all are breaking my heart.

I was born and raised in Louisiana, only leaving after college. And there is a lot I was really glad to leave behind when I left the south, but "y'all" is not one of those things. I love "y'all". I use "y'all" all the time. I love that it's gender neutral -- as someone who's always felt pretty non-binary but grew up with everything in my environment trying to reinforce my assigned female gender, "y'all" is a comforting unifying pronoun that I can relax around.

This southerner is telling y'all -- use "y'all"!!! Please make "y'all" happen!! I want all a' y'all, and all a' y'all's friends and family to use "y'all". I want to hear it everywhere. Please get it out of y'all's head that it's somehow wrong to use "y'all". I want it to be taught as the official second person plural in ESL classes. And I'm doing my part: I live in Europe and I use it as much as I can with my non-native-English-speaking friends so they pick it up. If I'm translating something in Dutch class, that "jullie" becomes "y'all", no question.

There is nothing country and everything perfect about "y'all", and in the battle between all the wacky second person plurals we've come up with to fill this unacceptable gap in the English language, I want y'all to help me make "y'all" win.
posted by antinomia at 3:40 PM on August 26 [13 favorites]


"There is nothing country and everything perfect about "y'all", and in the battle between all the wacky second person plurals we've come up with to fill this unacceptable gap in the English language, I want y'all to help me make "y'all" win."

Born in Louisiana but raised in New York and a lifetime New Yorker, I use y'all ALL the time. because it works! this is like, a problem we have already solved. I have run into zero problems with this, and also it's fun. Plus I get to throw my NY accent on it :-D
posted by emirenic at 4:06 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


The patriarchy affects us all.

Patriarchy surely affects us all. But maybe we should regard women who use "you guys" as having agency, and using language the way they want to use it, not merely as helpless pawns.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:52 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


not merely as helpless pawns

I'm not reading that in this thread? If others reading are I'd love to know more. As far as my contributions to the thread go I'm asking people to examine how they are complicit in upholding patriarchy and if I'm being unclear on that please critique me.
posted by noiseanoise at 4:57 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Maybe I misunderstood tiny frying pan's comment, and it was meant to suggest that the women who use "you guys" gender-neutrally aren't pawns of patriarchy, but rather conscious collaborators with it? I'm not sure if there's another interpretation.

We definitely live in very prescriptivist times, linguistically speaking. But I think the ways people actually use language will always confound even the most zealous attempts to reform it.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 5:04 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


gotcha, yah I think any critique here of "you guys" is actually falling along the lines of a conversation about markedness theory in linguistics and social sciences and is not really going to be very productive when framed as a prescriptivist/descriptivist argument.

It really should be more "how complicit do you want to be?" and less about trying to control the use of language.
posted by noiseanoise at 5:11 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]


I address my student groups with "Hi, all!" and am gradually giving it up for just "Hi!" I'm with SansPoint though, as a Philadelphian, the problem is neatly solved with "Youse." Just "Youse." As in, "Youse going to the store?" Probably originated in Irish somewhere.
posted by Peach at 6:18 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I address my student groups with "Hi, all!"

If you say that slowly and smoothly, you'll find you're already saying " y'all".
posted by solotoro at 6:39 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]


I do wonder how you'd take it from me. I grew up in the South, and it comes naturally to me...but I've been told many times that I do not have anything resembling what is usually considered a Southern accent, so that fact isn't particularly apparent.

That's me: I was born in Lafayette Louisiana, and grew up in Lake Charles*. Except my dad was in the Air Force when I was like 1-8, so I have no accent. My younger sisters: strong accents. If anything, I lean into y'all to show where I'm from.

Personally (again, as someone who grew up in the South), I have no problem with "y'all" becoming standard, and wouldn't see it as cultural appropriation. "Y'all means all": it provides a handy, inclusive second person plural, and could be one of the South's greatest contributions.


*Pray, etc. for SWLA tonight.
posted by MrGuilt at 6:45 PM on August 26 [7 favorites]


All you all.
y'all

love abbreviated redundancy.
posted by clavdivs at 7:49 PM on August 26


because one's vocative and the other's second person plural.

Okay, but both the vocative and the second person plural are used in a gender neutral fashion by some, and objected to by others. The fact that they're grammatically distinct is neither here nor there. She doesn't make an argument for why the second person plural usage is less inherently gendered than the vocative, except "it bothers me less, personally".
posted by Dysk at 9:27 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]


FWIW, the criticisms of "you guys" seem very much on point to me.

On its face, it seems odd that such a recent and maladroit coinage has gained such currency. But if existing words like "y'all" and "youse" did not have the particular markings of region, race and class that have caused them to be persistently labeled as "nonstandard," they would surely have occupied the field long since and there would be no gap for "you guys" to fill. "You guys" might merit a usage label as "informal," but certainly nothing as dangerous as "nonstandard" or "dialectal" -- the informality of "you guys" is the informality of an upper-class pool party, posing no threat to any status claims the speaker might have.

I suppose this dynamic that has hampered the spread of more mellifluous coinages like "y'all" has a lot in common with the awkward striving after formality and prestige that deprived us of "thou" to begin with. The more things change...

(In this connection it is interesting to me how the author's concern about not saying "y'all" because that might be culturally appropriative ends up with exactly the same result as a status-anxious grammar scold of yesteryear saying' "I won't say 'y'all' because it would sound low-class." I have no doubt the author is sincere in her concern, but it's remarkable just how resilient this linguistic machinery of hierarchy is. Stamp out one rationale and another sprouts up to take its place.)
posted by Not A Thing at 9:47 PM on August 26 [4 favorites]


A lot of the association issue with Y'all goes away if you deemphasize the "a" and say it more like y'll, pronounced closer to yull than yawl.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:53 PM on August 26


I've tried (am trying) to cut "you guys" out of my vocabulary as a teacher. It's hard. "You guys" is casual, unmarked (in the sense that it doesn't get the "You from here?" reaction "y'all" sometimes does), and amenable to many useful inflections. As a complete sentence, meaningfully intoned, "You guys" is unreasonably efficacious at activating a whole sequence of check-yourself reflexes in my middle schoolers.

But my subject (math) has a huge gender imbalance that manifests, in part, in differential feelings of belonging. Even if I doubt any part of that is attributable to something as simple and correctable as an insidiously gendered idiom, why take the chance? I want my students to know that I'm talking to all of them.

now for some silly replies

It'd be a bit easier to parse if it was written as the one-word pronoun that people actually pronounce it and use it as. No one ever says "you. guys." It's always "euguise," like a variant of "Eugene", as distinct from "you, Gene."

Yes, euguise is the true form. /etymologyjoke

I did pick up "hella" and "the 80" from 11 years in California, though.

You must've been all over the state!

(Those are NorCal and SoCal shibboleths, respectively -- though overhyped in my opinion. "The XXX" doesn't sound unnatural to this NorCal native, while "hella" jumped the fence so long ago it's gotten to Nebraska.)
posted by aws17576 at 11:03 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I grew up in Texas and felt ashamed of my dialect when I went on a school trip to Washington DC. I trained”the Texas” out of my dialect for long time and people were always amazed that I was raised in Texas because they said “I sounded so smart”.

This helped my career more than anything, and that pisses me off honestly. About 10 years ago I decided to start letting my natural hick assed dialect show and people were totally floored. Now I know how to code switch my professional work dialect between “smart sounding person who isn’t an arrogant butthead” and full on “Texas southern queer” in a way that allows me to build credibility and integrity before I show my fullest self.

I am not apologetic for the dialect I was raised up in. But that said I have to live with the reality of it.

Y’all can y’all however y’all damn well please.
posted by noiseanoise at 11:11 PM on August 26 [7 favorites]


Since neither women nor trans people are monolithic in their beliefs and impressions, what proportion of a marginalized group must object to something before it is considered offensive? If one member of a marginalized group (or 5, or 10, or 1000) finds Word A troubling or offensive, and the rest disagree, do we respect the wishes of the smaller group, the larger group, or what?

There are two things I think you should be aware of. First, you are far from the first privileged person to ask this question. (In the past, I was one of them.) Second, your question appears to be based on multiple false assumptions. Therefore, there's a good chance that many people were annoyed or angered at your question, and didn't want to spend the time and effort explaining everything wrong with it. I decided to answer this question to try to spare them from doing so.

To begin, imagine you were planning a meal for a large group of people with peanut allergies. Would you give them a meal with peanuts in it? Would it make a difference if most of the group only had very mild symptoms to peanuts and didn't mind eating them, and only a small proportion experienced life-threatening reactions? Would it make a difference if, globally, 99% of people with peanut allergies had very mild symptoms, and only 1% experienced serious symptoms, and you didn't know if anyone with serious symptoms was part of the group you were serving? I would hope that, if you knew there was any chance at all that someone could suffer if you gave them a meal with peanuts, you would understand that it would be wrong to do so. It is likewise with using words that are offensive. When someone tells you that a word is offensive, they are either telling you, "This word hurts me," or, "If you use this word, there is a serious risk that you will hurt people in a certain group." It should not require any fixed number or proportion of people being harmed by some behavior in order for you to refrain from it.

Now, imagine that there was a person, call him Bob, notorious for juggling chainsaws on crowded trains. Most of the time no one gets hurt and everyone enjoys the spectacle, but every now and then someone gets horribly wounded. Yet, for some reason, no one stops him, and he continues to juggle chainsaws as if nothing ever happened. What would you think if he came up to you and asked, "I kind of understand why people complain about my juggling, but most people think it's entertaining. Train riders aren't a monolith, after all. How many people need to get hurt by my chainsaws before I should stop juggling chainsaws on crowded trains?" How could you answer him responsibly? What if you said, "Five people," and Bob took that as permission to keep juggling chainsaws as long as four or fewer people got hurt by it? Wouldn't you feel responsible in some way for those peoples' injuries? Or what if he replied, "Oh, so it's perfectly fine if four people get hurt, but suddenly it's not okay if five people do? That seems kinda arbitrary to me. I'm not sure I trust your judgement." This is the sort of struggle that many marginalized people go through when privileged people ask, "How many people need to be offended by something before it's considered offensive?" All of a sudden, they're put on the spot to answer an intractable philosophical problem as a representative of their entire marginalized group, where their answer could easily lead to the actual harm of more people, and at any rate may be dismissed in bad faith anyway.

Furthermore, even if we were to require that a certain number or proportion of marginalized people be offended by a word in order to declare it offensive, it is practically impossible to determine such a figure with any accuracy. Obviously, no one is going to run a formal survey with a random sample, so our only choice is to base our belief on our personal experiences. However, unless you yourself are marginalized, or you specifically make an effort to socialize with marginalized people or read their writing, these experiences are almost certainly not sufficient to form an accurate belief. First, you probably know disproportionately few marginalized people, so the amount of data you have to work with is disproportionately low. Second, the marginalized people you do know will be disproportionately likely to be privileged in some other way that differentiates them from the rest of their marginalized group, so the data you have to work with is probably not an accurate representation of the entire marginalized group. Third, many of them will avoid discussing or revealing their views on issues of marginalization with you, even up to the point of concealing their identities as marginalized, so the data you have to work with is systematically biased to downplay the harmfulness of any given behavior towards marginalized people. In short, there are many powerful and systemic influences that prevent you from obtaining an accurate understanding of how offensive any word or behavior really is.

So what, practically, are we supposed to do? I would say that if even one marginalized person tells you that a word is offensive, that is probably by itself sufficient evidence to conclude that it is offensive and you shouldn't use it. After all, for every one person telling you this, there may be dozens biting their tongues, and thousands more you will never have the chance to know. The strength of this evidence is increased even further if they are generous enough to give you a reason why it's offensive, and can practically be considered definitive if another, unrelated person gives a similar view. To be fair, these days we need to be careful that we're not falling for a hoax concocted by trolls, so it's probably prudent to gather a little more evidence to make sure that you're really getting information that reflects the views of marginalized people. But, apart from that, what are the downsides if you're wrong? You refrained from saying one word in the honest belief that doing so avoided harm to other people. That's the sort of mistake I'm perfectly happy to make.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 11:19 PM on August 26 [12 favorites]


I’ve decided as a result of this thread to seek a certain jouissance of my markedness, in that i want to transgress beyond the lacanian pleasure principle into pain and yet at the same deny the phallic principles of Lacan while extending Cixous’ interpretation beyond the binarist idea of “woman” as lesser and instead include everyone who carries any kind of mark which makes someone lesser in the eyes of others. Some of these marks do not rise to the level of being oppressed, yet so many do. In the ways that we a majority of us are marked, we can find a common ground and celebrate our differences while building coalition.

The hierarchy has to be dismantled somehow, and until we find a way to form a majority of the marked the hierarchy will feast on our divisions.
posted by noiseanoise at 12:38 AM on August 27


Southern. Y'all. Don't understand why everyone doesn't y'all.

However, my current choir director is from New Jersey. She has clearly worked to train herself to degender her language. When she wants the tenors and basses to sing, she says "Tenors and basses" not "Men," and when she wants the altos and sopranos to sing, she says "Altos and sopranos", not "Women," which is surprisingly rare among choral directors.

And when she wants everyone to sing, I can imagine she once had a big struggle to not say "Okay, you guys" or "Men and women", and instead she carefully says "All the people", and I love it when she says "All the people" so much. If you can't say y'all for whatever reason, consider "all the people". It is beautiful.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:13 AM on August 27 [9 favorites]


J.K. Seazer, I appreciate you setting down your thoughts systematically here and trying to get at the fundamentals of Ben Trismegistus's question. I agree that in the case of slurs, it makes sense to err on the side of not personally using an offensive word or phrase once even one person has said "hey that's offensive" (with a judgment check for "is this person basically trolling")*. I do want to mention a couple points where either I disagree or I think you are missing part of the question that Ben Trismegistus raised.

Ben Trismegistus wasn't just talking about whether to personally avoid using a particular phrase, but about whether to discourage others from using it even in private conversation, which is a higher bar:

I'm not going to tell anyone they shouldn't object to or be offended by it. But at the same time, I'm not going to tell my wife that she has internalized misogyny whenever she says it.

I also think your chainsaw-juggling analogy and the rest of your comment imply that there is zero cost to any change to one's habitual speech patterns -- that speaking the offensive thing is like juggling chainsaws, a hobby one actively takes up that takes conscious effort and time. Given that most people who speak English** use objectionable words and phrases in our spontaneous speech unless we particularly work to mitigate the habits that society trained us in, I think that choosing to do that work is more like choosing to wear a mask when outside one's home during the pandemic. It's a way of filtering the air we reflexively breathe to reduce risk to everyone, even though most of the air we are breathing is probably not harmful. It's the right thing to do, yes, but it also does take new, explicit, consistent personal effort and is a little uncomfortable for most people, and I believe it's worthwhile to acknowledge that while doing it myself and encouraging others to do so as well.

But, apart from that, what are the downsides if you're wrong?

There's the explicit effort necessary to change one's own speech habits, which adds up as more words enter one's own "prohibited" list -- I am okay with saying "it's worth it" but I do acknowledge that it's a downside.

Discouraging other people from using particular words and phrases -- especially when there is active controversy over whether they are offensive (Ben Trismegistus's example of the safety pin symbol) -- is even more effort than changing one's own speech habits. In social and work settings, it can cost not only time but credibility and the social capital available to help advocate for other changes in the future.

Obviously, no one is going to run a formal survey with a random sample

I actually do not think this is obvious. This is the sort of thing that academic researchers do.

* There are 8+ billion people on Earth. There is a chance I'll run into one who is not deliberately trolling but has gotten themselves convinced that it is not okay to, for instance, ever use words like "man" because that perpetuates gender, or use "have" because that perpetuates property ownership and classism, or use subject-verb-object word order because that perpetuates colonialism, or something like that. I am also ok with deciding to ignore this kind of request even though it's not trolling, and this is where I appreciate Bjorkman laying out: "How easy is it to change? Are the reasons given for the change compelling? (And do they actually apply in this case?)" because I do think it's okay to say "no, this would be incredibly hard for me to change in my habitual speech and the reasons are not compelling" even though the person requesting this is not trolling.

** I am only hedging here because I am not fluent in any other language
posted by brainwane at 5:54 AM on August 27 [4 favorites]


For posterity I want to mention that in Liverpool the plural pronoun of choice is "yous", which does the job.

Personally I have also flirted with the tongue-in-cheek "team", as in "hey team" or "let's go team", ideally in a very much not corporate context.
posted by Acey at 6:58 AM on August 27


There are 8+ billion people on Earth. There is a chance I'll run into one who is not deliberately trolling

This chance decreases as social media becomes more pervasive.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 7:10 AM on August 27


and instead she carefully says "All the people"

So many people
And hey, all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their...
posted by Cardinal Fang at 7:13 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Now, imagine that there was a person, call him Bob, notorious for juggling chainsaws on crowded trains.

Sorry, but I'm not keen on the analogy used there because it misses some of the key elements that makes "you guys" a problem. The difficulty is that the issue is more a systemic one than one of individual harm, so while the usage is framed as "offensive", for most of those who object, save for the more literal minded, the underlying response is closer to disgust than personal offense, because the use of "guys" in this way is well understood as being intended as generic rather than as a slur or personal attack. It isn't a failure of understanding, but a deeper awareness of the use being meant as generic when it is so obviously gendered and supports a concept of a male dominant social order.

The closer analog would be one of pollution, where the society as a whole suffers from it, but some feel its effect more immediately or intensely due to a heightened awareness from their own circumstance or as learned through study. Most people accept the conditions in which they exist as being "just the way things are" and don't necessarily even reflect on the possibility for change or a different way of being. If everyone else just accepts their conditions as a given, then there is limited desire of alternatives and speaking of such may invite more comment or criticism than simply accepting one's lot as one might understand others as doing. Challenging the status quo can create a feeling of alienation from the group, whether real or imagined.

"You guys" is used as a generic term for groups because that's how people hear others use it and the pattern of use sticks. Switching patterns isn't as easy as it may seem because we have a fairly extensive library of use "rules" that can be difficult to alter for having so many elements to them, with different regions and groups having different understandings of what those "rules" or patterns might be. Those patterns aren't just ones of definition, but of things like pacing or cadence, vowel sounds, and commonality of reference. Trying to import "y'all", for example, to a group or regions that don't normally use the dawn out Aww sound can make it sound like an affectation, joke, or otherwise call notice to itself for both not fitting usual speech patterns of the group and for also being recognizably that of a different group.

That's why it is so readily used by some despite it obviously carrying male oriented connotations, but also why it is so easily understood by most as being meant as a generic reference. At the same time, that also points to why it is, like pollution, so toxic for being considered as a normal part of the background. The patriarchy isn't just something some may optionally find offensive out of an excessive sensitivity or special risk of harm, but something we all exist under and feel the effects of, whether we recognize them or not and why it can be useful to try to change our behavior even if we don't see the full problem ourselves, as we all are going to be blind to some elements of our lived conditions.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:25 AM on August 27 [4 favorites]


But at the same time, I'm not going to tell my wife that she has internalized misogyny whenever she says it.
Good call. I'd better not ever have a man correct my "misogynist" speech and even women should think twice before they do this to other women. We're all richly aware of the misogyny we're all subject to and being condescended to about it doesn't help.

Someone mentioned upthread that they seem to hear "you guys" used by women more often than men and I can see that being the case - it's the kind of friendly, non-threatening language women are socialized to use. If this becomes the sort of thing it's socially acceptable to correct others about, we all know whose going to get the most grief about it - the exact same 50% of the population who get criticized for everything else they do.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 7:31 AM on August 27 [4 favorites]


J.K. Seazer, brainwane, and others, thank you for your thoughtful responses.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 7:43 AM on August 27


Two different thoughts I'd like to share -

> Douglas Hofstadter (of "Godel, Escher Bach" fame, (sorry I don't know how to type an umlaut)) wrote about "you guys" back in 1991

Hofstadter also taught a really interesting semester-long seminar on the cognitive implications of language, where a major focus of the time was spent digging deeper into the word "guys". I'm sorry I can't find a copy of "You've Come a Long Way, Guys! (Or, Generic 'Man' and Generic 'He' in a New Guise)." (Has anyone seen it around?) Perhaps people would enjoy his deliciously snarky "A Person Paper on Purity in Language" by William Satire".

I also wanted to add here that, as a mostly-straight cis-male, I've recently become convinced, especially by this excellent New York Times piece, to begin shifting to the singular they/them for my preferred pronouns:

Farhad Manjoo - Opinion | It’s Time for ‘They’
posted by spbmp at 8:21 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


How do we all feel about the Biden catchphrase “c’mon man”?

Back in my union days I tried to popularize “comrade” as opposed to the standard brother/sister. I still think it’s a good option.
posted by thedamnbees at 11:47 AM on August 27


If people think "guys" is gender neutral, I recommend them asking a straight man if he enjoys having sex with guys.

In my experience, the neutrality disappears real, real quick.
posted by Ouverture at 11:50 AM on August 27 [5 favorites]


As a retail manager in the South, I've really wished for a good genderless honorific. A lot of people like hearing that "sir" or "ma'am" (though thankfully fewer than there used to be). I have always excluded it, not wanting to assume anything. "Friend" sounds too familiar. "Comrade" sounds too bolshevik. I'm always tickled when service people call me "boss," but I can't pull it off. I guess in the end it's just as well, since I'd rather be meeting a customer on even terms than bowing and scraping.

I've heard it said that "boi" is gender neutral when spelled that way, so I guess it shows that the younger generation is still not immune to this eyeroll thinking.
posted by rikschell at 12:12 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Brain Sturgeon: Someone mentioned upthread that they seem to hear "you guys" used by women more often than men and I can see that being the case - it's the kind of friendly, non-threatening language women are socialized to use.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, since I'm not a native speaker... but I believe that a part of the reason could be that there aren't all that many informal, friendly words for 'woman'. There's not really a good female equivalent for 'guy'... 'girl' isn't really it, it sounds too young. After all, a 'guy' can be of any age.
'Gal' may qualify but not in all regiolects.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:35 PM on August 27


That's actually a really good point, too. There really isn't a good way to address a group of women. "Girls" is only good for actual girls and I know there are many women who strongly object to the connotations of both "gals" and "ladies", which is part of the reason people end up addressing groups of women as well as mixed groups as "you guys". I don't know why we can't say something like "All right, women, let's get to work", the way you can with "men" but I've literally never heard anyone use it that way.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 1:42 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Previously on MetaFilter, another discussion of the supposed gender neutrality of "dude" and "guys" evolved from an FPP about a Douglas Hofstader essay.

emmalemma said it well over there:
But that’s the proooooblemmmmmmm!!!! The genericization of male language, just like the masculinization of generic language, is part of a discourse between maleness and genericity. That’s not a gender neutral discourse. That’s a discourse without any concept like “gender neutral”— the generic in this language just is male.

If you really want to help, try getting folks who use “guys” for a group of all men to switch to the gender-neutral term “girls” instead. Notice that that task is utterly impossible, and sit with the discomfort of asymmetry.

>>>"Girls" is only good for actual girls and I know there are many women who strongly object to the connotations of both "gals" and "ladies"

Isn't it insidious how that misogyny works? It takes my breath away. Every single gendered word for referring to women has negative connotations. And that becomes our argument and our justification for normalizing male-gendered words even more. It's a vicious cycle.
posted by MiraK at 4:03 PM on August 27 [14 favorites]


I try to do "y'all", "folks", "gang", "groovers", or just "team". I do sometimes slip with "guys" but I'm getting better with it.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:27 PM on August 27


Isn't it insidious how that misogyny works? It takes my breath away. Every single gendered word for referring to women has negative connotations. And that becomes our argument and our justification for normalizing male-gendered words even more. It's a vicious cycle.

In general I agree with you, and that definitely applies to how calling men "girls" would never be acceptable (my stars!)

But in the specific example, I don't think it follows. Calling women "girls" is no good because it's calling us children, just as you wouldn't call men "boys." Calling us "ladies" is no good because it's archaic and weird, just like calling men "gentlemen." There literally isn't a female equivalent of "guys" other than "gals," and people just don't say that. We could push to make that a thing, I guess, but I don't know what it would solve.
posted by Mchelly at 5:55 PM on August 27


So in Chinese, pronouns can be made plural by adding the suffix 们 (men). As a result, the second person plural pronoun in Singlish is "you all", after 你们 (ni men). But at the same time, "all" also ends up being redundantly suffixed to pronouns that are already plural as well, giving us "we all" and "they all". All forms are commonly used.
posted by destrius at 6:05 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


But in the specific example, I don't think it follows. Calling women "girls" is no good because it's calling us children, just as you wouldn't call men "boys." Calling us "ladies" is no good because it's archaic and weird, just like calling men "gentlemen." There literally isn't a female equivalent of "guys" other than "gals," and people just don't say that.

So really you're arguing it does follow, just as I said, that "Every single gendered word for referring to women has negative connotations. And that becomes our argument and our justification for normalizing male-gendered words even more. It's a vicious cycle."
posted by MiraK at 6:08 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


An example I've been thinking about: "gender neutral" names used in English generally originate as male names, then are given to female babies, then eventually become female-only names because female things are marked as low-status (e.g. Taylor and Jamie are in the middle of this process, Kelly and Ashley are at the end of it). This process never goes the other way around. So is every person who names their baby girl Jamie participating in a patriarchal process? Yes. Then should we insist that people stop naming their daughters Jamie if they don't also name a son Ashley? If there's no ethical consumption under capitalism, can there be ethical language under sexism?
posted by airmail at 6:35 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


As a practising linguist, I think debates over certain bits of language only really serve to distract and divide those who would otherwise be united against the prejudiced attitudes that are thought to underlie them. Language is so heterogeneous, friends. 1.5 billion people speak English. Over the course of your lifetime, you're not likely to come in contact with even a thousandth of one percent of them, if that. Your sweeping pronouncements on what attitudes underlie how they speak are comically anecdotal and virtually guaranteed to make you look embarrassingly self-centred. Just go after the attitudes themselves: make the moral argument directly. There is no need to take upon yourself the additional, much more thankless burden of substantiating a descriptive claim about how and why a certain piece of language is used, especially when it is used by so many people across such a diversity of cultures!
posted by Panthalassa at 10:58 PM on August 27


Your sweeping pronouncements on what attitudes underlie how they speak are comically anecdotal and virtually guaranteed to make you look embarrassingly self-centred.

Etymologies exist even if individuals using a particular word aren't familiar with them. There are sexist/misogynist attitudes underlying the usage of 'guys' as gender neutral. It's just that this is systemic and not individualised.

Like, the fact that someone using the term "deja vu" for example might not know that it comes from French and does not intend to connote France or Frenchness, does not mean that the word doesn't actually come from French. Similarly, while the individual user may not be aware of, condone, or intend any of the sexist attitudes behind male-as-default, that's still a feature of that language.
posted by Dysk at 12:47 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


I don't think etymology is quite the concept we're talking about here. "Guys" isn't a problem because it originally referred to men. It's a problem because it is still a word that sometimes refers specifically to men. And whenever you use a word that sometimes refers to a specific group as an umbrella term for everyone, there's a danger that people will at some level be thinking of the specific group as the "real" people you're talking about and everybody else as not really members of the group. Especially when there's a history of that specific group being the dominant privileged group that others have been excluded from.

I think that danger is going to exist not just among all English speakers but in any language where a word that refers to a specific group is sometimes used as a word that supposedly includes everyone.

When my daughter was 4 years old, she pointed at a sign in an airplane bathroom showing a person throwing trash in the proper place and complained that I had brought her into the men's room. Because the pictogram for "PERSON" was identical to the pictogram that specifically distinguishes "MEN" from "WOMEN."
posted by straight at 1:18 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


there's a danger that people will at some level be thinking of the specific group as the "real" people you're talking about and everybody else as not really members of the group.

Sorry straight, I largely agree with where you're coming from, but I think saying "there's a danger that people will" kinda misses the point that it isn't about what people might think as much as it is that the language and culture are already completely saturated with the idea of maleness, and its associated "masculine virtues" as the default social measure and a social ideal. This isn't a problem that might or could happen, it's been the absolute base of the social order for centuries and is something that needs to be escaped, not just worried about as a possibility.

The root of this is so deep that it requires extensive digging into our language and assumptions to even begin to dig out and it's so embedded in our way of thinking that virtually no one is immune to its reach. Pruning one term from use obviously isn't a solution for anything in itself, but it draws attention to how thick the weeds are in all aspects of the culture.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:31 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I think that danger is going to exist not just among all English speakers but in any language where a word that refers to a specific group is sometimes used as a word that supposedly includes everyone.

Like "English".
posted by Cardinal Fang at 6:26 AM on August 28


Similarly, while the individual user may not be aware of, condone, or intend any of the sexist attitudes behind male-as-default, that's still a feature of that language.

This is absurd, imo. Sexism is not some objectively quantifiable feature of a language, like the primeness of numbers. What makes a piece of language sexist is the actual role it plays in the gender relations of actual people. If users of a language are not deploying a piece of language for sexist ends, if indeed they have no knowledge of its sexist etymology, then I think it almost verges on chauvinistic to go in and tell them that the language they are using is in fact sexist according to you because you are in possession of a set of facts about how the language was once used by other people.

Like, the word 'bad' is thought to come from an Old English word meaning 'effeminate person'. Clearly, if this is true, the word 'bad' has sexist origins. It is just as clear how ridiculous it would be to mount a campaign against the use of the word 'bad' on the basis of these origins.
posted by Panthalassa at 7:21 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


To put the point differently, I think there is no inherent contradiction in the idea of an English-speaking community in which sexism has been eradicated and in which 'you guys' is a construction in frequent use by speakers. And what this indicates is that the problem really has nothing to do with 'you guys', but with a resonance between this structure of the language and an undesirable structure of our society. If we destroy the latter, then we destroy the underlying problem and the resonance disappears. If we destroy the former, then the resonance might disappear, but we still have the underlying problem.
posted by Panthalassa at 8:03 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I agree that we can't impute sexism etc. to unaware speakers or speech communities, but I have no problem imputing those things to the language itself.

The issue with your example is that there is nothing intrinsically offensive about the word "guys," but it is problematic when used to describe people who are not guys in the strict sense of the word. So yes, it's possible to use "you guys" to describe a group of women in a society where sexism doesn't exist, and in which no one has a problem with using it in that fashion, but it doesn't change the underlying issue that the very process that makes male-gendered words and phrases "gender neutral" is itself likely sexist in origin (in operation if not in intent).

That may ultimately be an academic distinction, and certainly a society as a whole can decide that a word or phrase has long-since transcended its sexist origins (like your "bad" example above, or my earlier examples of "sucks" and "blows"), but those associations are still there.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:10 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I think there is no inherent contradiction in the idea of an English-speaking community in which sexism has been eradicated and in which 'you guys' is a construction in frequent use by speakers.

How does this hypothetical apply to reality? Like, what is the point of this thought experiment?

In your imaginary English-speaking community in which sexism has been eradicated, there will necessarily also be female-gendered terms which are also used as gender neutral forms of address exactly as often as male gendered terms like "you guys". The existence of the balancing female-gendered terms is what would make the use of "you guys" okay in your hypothetical scenario. If those do not exist, then this proves sexism has not been eradicated and therefore "you guys" remains sexist usage. ----> which is where English is now, in reality. "You guys" as a gender neutral is sexist in real life.

> And what this indicates is that the problem really has nothing to do with 'you guys', but with a resonance between this structure of the language and an undesirable structure of our society.

Once again I am not sure why you're making this distinction, like, are you trying to defend the English language from accusations of sexism? Or perhaps even the idea that words, when dissociated from culture and speech and society and context, cannot be sexist in and of themselves? Yeah, I mean, sure. Frictionless language used by perfectly spherical creatures who make mouth sounds in a contextless ahistorical void are not necessarily being sexist I suppose.
posted by MiraK at 8:24 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


If we wanna degender historically sexist language then let's degender terms that are historically coded "feminine" as well.
posted by noiseanoise at 8:28 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


> And what this indicates is that the problem really has nothing to do with 'you guys', but with a resonance between this structure of the language and an undesirable structure of our society.

Once again I am not sure why you're making this distinction, like, are you trying to defend the English language from accusations of sexism? Or perhaps even the idea that words, when dissociated from culture and speech and society and context, cannot be sexist in and of themselves? Yeah, I mean, sure. Frictionless language used by perfectly spherical creatures who make mouth sounds in a contextless ahistorical void are not necessarily being sexist I suppose.


No, I'm trying to defend people from speech community A, who use a linguistic tool completely innocently and without malice, from people from speech community B, where that linguistic tool reflects prejudice present in B, coming in and telling A that their linguistic tool also reflects prejudice present in A. And I think it's pretty telling that the only alternative you can think of to 'us' and 'our society' is 'perfectly spherical creatures who make mouth sounds in a contextless ahistorical void'—a complete effacement of the deep heterogeneity of human culture and language usage that I made a point of emphasising in my first contribution to this thread, and which we all need to be mindful of before making sweeping descriptive claims on the back of our own limited linguistic experience. I'm going to close out my contributions here by once again reiterating that we are just missing an enormous trick and moreover wasting massive amounts of our limited reserves of time, energy and good will when we prosecute bits of language rather than the prejudices thought to underlie them when the antipathy towards the prejudice is accepted and shared but the link between the language and the prejudice is not.
posted by Panthalassa at 9:12 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I mean, we have literally had so many conversations of late on this site about not assuming that the users here are a monolith, but so many contributors to this thread cannot stop themselves from issuing dictates about how a particular piece of language is to be used based on how it is used in the speech communities that they are a part of, without any regard for whether other users are also part of those communities. And that's just deeply frustrating and depressing, so I'm done here for now.
posted by Panthalassa at 9:20 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


which is why, Panthalassa, any discussion involving this topic that doesn't include Markedness in linguistics is doing the discussion a disservice because we are starting from a point of flattening language into a horizontal line instead of properly recognizing that we are starting from a place of linguistic hierarchy.
posted by noiseanoise at 9:25 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


#notallspeechcommunities

Look, if you use gendered language that you feel is degendered, it still is gendered. I get that some people don't examine this, so they are, "innocent," so to speak, but that's why it's good to talk about why the assumption of using "male as default" is harmful. For everyone.
posted by tiny frying pan at 9:28 AM on August 28 [8 favorites]


I'm trying to defend people from speech community A, who use a linguistic tool completely innocently and without malice, from people from speech community B, where that linguistic tool reflects prejudice present in B

Sexism exists in literally every speech community in the world, so speech community A's "innocence" is 100% feigned. You're being had! Don't fall for speech community A's tricks!

It's different when the cultural connotation in question is less universal. For instance you may be right to say Americans are genuinely innocent if someone from India got offended by an American telling them they're "wise like an owl." (YT) Cultural symbolism and meaning overloads for "owl" genuinely does differ between linguistic communities. Sadly, cultural adherence to male supremacy doesn't. There are no innocents here.
posted by MiraK at 9:40 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


If you stop yourself from using a slur, do not come and report it on the internet for people to see. It doesn’t somehow count less here. You don’t get cookies for having not used it in one situation and then feeling fine using it to make a point in another.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:03 AM on August 28


Surely it's a reasonable subject for this thread, no? I'm not seeking cookies and don't see others asking for them either.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:51 AM on August 28


The point there is please don't use slurs to make a point that you didn't say them because then we all still have to read the slurs. You still said them.
posted by tiny frying pan at 12:06 PM on August 28


[Deleted a few comments. Just a quick note that mentioning specific slurs (even in a discussion like this to say they're slurs) is something to be really careful with for the reasons given here. It's an area where norms are evolving and not every case is the same, but it's worth being aware there are a number of people who don't want to see offensive terms written out even in a context saying they're bad. Better to make the point without mentioning the slurs or do it in an obfuscated way.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:25 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Fair enough, thanks. Sorry - I will do better.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:39 PM on August 28


so many contributors to this thread cannot stop themselves from issuing dictates about how a particular piece of language is to be used based on how it is used in the speech communities that they are a part of, without any regard for whether other users are also part of those communities

it's pretty wild.

to take two steps away from the u.s. context for a minute (which i am assuming is the context from which the vast majority of commenters are speaking):

first, expanding on the above re the use of 'man' in multicultural london english, the patchy gender neutral use of 'man' as a pronoun contrasts with the apparently common use of 'man' as a pragmatic marker and (more relevant to this discussion) an address term, including among female speakers, although frustratingly no data on its prevalence as an address term among female speakers as compared to alternatives (i.e. whether it's the standard or a lesser-used option):

The incomplete desemanticisation of the pronoun man is in sharp contrast to the pragmatic marker man, which developed separately, and much earlier, from the noun man and is now fully grammaticalised. In our data both male and female speakers use man as a pragmatic marker, and as an address term it is used both by and to females as well as males.

second, an article on the australian approach, noting the distinction between the use of 'guys' (primarily gender-neutral, especially among younger demographics) and 'guy' (male only). content warning, the article spells out half a dozen unredacted racist / ableist / homophobic / misogynist slurs in the sixth paragraph (beginning "mr morrison was launching...") in the context of noting these as derogatory terms no longer acceptable in the workplace. the paragraph can be skipped without missing anything.
posted by inire at 1:52 PM on August 28


and third (i'll stop now), an article on the irish approach. it bemoans 'you guys' (as an american interloper, ironically, rather than for gender-related reasons) and notes that ireland has if anything too many alternative second person plurals - "including “youse” and “yiz” in Dublin, “ye” in Munster and the west, and “yousuns” in the North". unfortunately, since all of these are seen as low class, and 'proper' english lacks a decent alternative since the decline of 'thou' (outside the republic of yorkshire, anyway), it looks like the american 'you guys' is becoming the default choice.

i feel like i could work with 'ye', tbh.
posted by inire at 2:24 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Y'all are realllly enamored of this idea that because something is popular and also popularly defended as non-sexist, it therefore cannot be sexist. Weird.
posted by MiraK at 3:24 PM on August 28 [6 favorites]


not so much 'cannot' as 'is not automatically in all cases regardless of context', but i can see that suggestions to steer away from blanket statements and think outside one's own box are falling on deaf ears at this point. you'll forgive me if i leave it to others to lecture the youth of australia and london on how they're actually ignorantly perpetuating sexism. i can't handle that many eyerolls.
posted by inire at 3:38 PM on August 28


What is the context that makes the youth of london and australia exempt from the sexism of using male-gendered words as universal? Serious question.

Because afaik, a long, long history of using male-gendered words as universal and in doing so erasing and/or invisibling women is very much part of real reality in both london and australia, not just usa. Just because this usage is more popular there, and more popularly defended as being non-sexist there, doesn't magically make it non-sexist. Just because a lot of people sincerely don't intend it as sexist, also doesn't magically make it non-sexist.
posted by MiraK at 4:02 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


the context is that the words, as widely and consistently used by them among themselves in particular grammatical forms (e.g. 'you guys'), are not widely meant or understood as male gendered, as according to linguists, dictionary editors and the youths themselves. it's not just about intention, for sure (intention not being magic when it comes to excusing bigotry) - it's about intention matching understanding matching context (demographic / geographic / societal context).

that three-way alignment does, in fact, affect the gendering and the meaning of the word in that context, because the meaning of language in a given context is affected by its usage and understanding in that context. to be reductive about it, a sufficient level of popularity is in fact somewhat magic, when it comes to language. that may only apply in their demographic / geographic context - per the article, older australians are more likely to see 'you guys' as erasing rather than including women, and so in their cultural context, it's more likely to be sexist. in other countries where gender-neutral 'you guys' is not really a widespread thing at any level or part of society, it'll very likely be sexist. there might also be a difference based on the term's history - from the australia article:

"Macquarie Dictionary senior editor Victoria Morgan said in Australia, teenagers started using "guys" as a gender neutral term in the '80s and it has been since been used to refer to groups of people of both gender. She added the word "guys" was not a term that carried an inherently sexist connotation and came into usage without any power struggle between the genders.

"It's not like terms like chairman or air hostess, which has origins in a patriarchal system and definitely not gender neutral," she said.
"

per that last sentence, i don't think australian youth have some contextual superpower that means any male gendered word can be used universally without being sexist. it's just this one sufficiently evolved term (maybe there are a few others, i don't know). there was probably a point back in the 80s / 90s where australians were having the same argument, but that was 30 years ago and the language (for younger demographics) has genuinely evolved. they didn't treat the default male gendering of 'you guys' as immutable and deal with the initial sexism of gender-neutral usage by finding an alternative term - they went in the other direction and used it gender-neutrally so often that the default meaning changed (and good for them).

noiseanoise mentioned markedness several times upthread as being a necessary part of the discussion, which i don't have the knowledge to bring in here, but i would assume a term's markedness would also be context- / meaning-dependent and therefore affected by a change in meaning in a given context. someone might correct me on that though.

(also sorry for snarking, it was uncalled for.)
posted by inire at 4:36 PM on August 28


There was a three-way alignment between intention, understanding, and context (by your rather strange standards that totally exclude dissidents and the oppressed, at least) for MANY sexist, racist, and *ist words as being totally cool until very recently. That's no reason to insist on using all the words and phrases our consciousness has now been raised about. Alignments are not written in stone, and nor are they a get-out-of-sexism-free-forever pass. Furthermore, you cannot possibly claim the alignment is universal. I personally know many, many Australians and Londoners who are not in alignment with sexist usage like "you guys" as gender neutral.

Even if the alignment was universal, it is not a reason to defend that usage as non-sexist. The alignment is nothing but "popularity", and popularity does not make something non-sexist.
posted by MiraK at 5:26 PM on August 28


Markedness in linguistics means that a word which is considered a default is unmarked, and a word which signifies “other” is marked. The specific quality of a marked word is that the unmarked word defines and sets the context over the marked term. Objects and subjects which are “marked” mean different, an outlier, not the default. In many instances this forms a linguistic hierarchy which in many ways extends to how we use words to describe our social order.

In fashion for instance, this linguistic phenomenon displays in clothes that are unusual, or have some notion of desire attached to them, either from a consumer wanting to buy the item, or the wearer being an object of desire for wearing them. In fashion these are called, literally “fashion marks”. So there is marked fashion and unmarked clothing. In fashion, clothing that is marked is usually marked in a way that is “urban” (aka black), “street” (gay, black, punk, goth, skater) or “women’s fashion”. Rarely do fashion marks ever appear on everyday clothing for men.

That’s just one way markedness in linguistics shapes our everyday life in ways which are real but not always discussed.
posted by noiseanoise at 5:29 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


TBH all of this is just a lot of words to sidestep the fundamental definition of sexism. I'm disappointed but not surprised that asking for context which makes this non-sexist yielded only a discussion of how nobody believes it's sexist, therefore it's not.
posted by MiraK at 5:37 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


I am not arguing with you that the alignment exists. I'm arguing that it's sexist regardless of the alignment. The alignment is not a reason to defend that usage as non-sexist. The alignment is nothing but "popularity", and popularity does not make something non-sexist.

perhaps call it popularity x time x source = potential to make something non-sexist. 'man' was widely used and understood to mean 'humanity' for a long time, but that definition was a top-down imposition by 'respectable' society and its privileged leaders (i.e. men). its source meant it was still tainted as sexist regardless of popularity and time. the r word similarly, given its origin in the medical establishment (plus its use as a slur / pejorative, which carries its own taint that's much harder to erase). an organic bottom-up adoption / cooption and gender-neutralisation of a non-pejorative male gendered term by a mixed gender group doesn't carry that taint. there was surely sexism at play in the initial choice of a male gendered term to adopt as a gender-neutral default, but how long does that original sin last in the face of broad popularity and use over time of the gender neutral term? surely there's a point at which (with reference to that group) the term is no longer sexist in any meaningful sense.

or at least, i have no idea how you could coherently explain it to them as being sexist when they use it among themselves. "'you guys' actually means a group of men so you're erasing the women / nb people in the group" - no it doesn't, we all understand it's gender-neutral, why would you think it means a group of men. "ok but 'guys' is a male gendered word" - not when we use it with each other as part of that gender-neutral phrase, see above. "ok but it used to be" - so what, not in our lifetimes. "it still is for some people" - not for us, we all use it this way, teens drive language change, who cares if our parents use it differently. "well other people would find your use of that phrase sexist" - guess we'd better not use it when we refer to them *eyeroll*. i just can't see where the sexism is, today, for that in-group's use.
posted by inire at 6:21 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


surely there's a point at which (with reference to that group) the term is no longer sexist in any meaningful sense.

And to me, it is sexist, to say that a male gendered term is a neutral one.
posted by tiny frying pan at 7:59 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


Well, clearly we are not at the point now where the term "guys" has become non-contentious since we are debating it here and part of the premise of the linked article was examining the debate. It may well be that someday the use of "guys" will only refer to mixed groups, but that is not at all the case today, where it has a split meaning, and I personally suspect a much more complex set of usage rules around when and how it is used to refer to mixed groups than a loose definition aligning it to terms like "ya'll" or "you lot" or "everybody" might suggest. "Guys" has some unique usage features those terms don't have. Also, its current popularity may only be a temporary thing fueled by imitation/association coming from US media use.

I certainly hope there isn't anyone here who would suggest the societies in which "guys" is used are not rife with sexism, as there has been ample evidence offered over the years as to that being the case. The language will reflect the values and priorities of the society, so in the case of terms like "guys" it is less "creating" sexism than reflecting that which already is an integral part of the culture. It may be that the current popularity does reflect some sense of change in the dynamic, an increased awareness of the importance of women in the society, but if it does it does so by matching the media method of saying the social machinery is fine, more people just need to be allowed to operate it. The way it does that is by not questions the values around maleness and masculinity, just asserting that women can be as "good", "able", "tough", "smart", or whatever as any man. That is still a deeply flawed perspective as it maintains men and the values associated with them as the measure of worth and just allows that women can achieve the same kind of place if they, essentially, adopt the same value.

There is, I hope, no question over how the language has been used or misused before to limit people by race, ability, and other asserted group qualities and continues to do so, even as those who used the terms involved likely wouldn't have seen themselves as being an "ist" of any sort, just following norms. I won't quote the most offensive terms of course, but terms like "insane" and "lame" still point to how we center communication around an assumed norm and ignore the implications that discourse might have on those that fall outside that norm. In the case of something like "guys" the defense of its use by its users is completely sensible as it is largely understood in what it is trying to convey by all parties, regardless of it is appreciated as such, and as with most things people aren't given to question efficacy and commonality, even if there are good reasons to do so if one looks more closely or is more directly affected by the "rules" that don't fit their lives or values.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:32 PM on August 28


> Personally I have also flirted with the tongue-in-cheek "team", as in "hey team" or "let's go team", ideally in a very much not corporate context.

what's the collective noun for humans?

hey buddies! :P
posted by kliuless at 10:23 PM on August 28


Can we start calling groups of men “dolls” please?
posted by noiseanoise at 1:52 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


maybe children!?

a children of men :P
posted by kliuless at 8:08 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


I think the only context where you could truly say it’s not sexist for a culture is if they don’t also use “guy” in their language and “you guys” literally formed. Like if cultural influences that seeped in was “you guys” and not “guys” at all.

Otherwise, saying “you guys” is using a known male noun to describe all groups.
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:01 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


This might be an easier to follow analog to the use of the term "guys" than I made before. I'm currently reading a book, written in the fifties, by a major philosopher of art Susanne Langer. Mrs. Langer, as the book jacket has it, received her degree from Radcliffe and taught, among other places, at the Connecticut College for Women, so was well used to speaking to groups comprised exclusively of other women. In her book, Feeling and Form, she has numerous occasions to write about the generic representative of various arts, such as in these two sentences from the page I am currently reading:

"A musician may sit at the keyboard, putting all sorts of themes and figures together in a loose fantasy, until one idea takes over and a structure emerges from the wandering sounds; or he may hear, all at once, without the distinction of any physical tones, perhaps even without exact tone colors as yet, the whole musical apparition. But however the total Gestalt presents itself to him, he recognizes it as the fundamental form of the piece; and henceforth his mind is no longer free to wander irresponsibly from theme to theme, key to key, and mood to mood."

The use of "he", "him", and "his" (not to mention "Mrs.) was the expected norm for communicating at the time when speaking of a representative generic figure, and to this day maintains a strong hold in much writing and speaking, even as it is/was known that there are many women musicians and the audience Professor Langer was speaking to in the book was mixed. Like examples occur many times throughout the book and myriad more throughout all the other communication from before it to the present day, all generally accepted and readily understood within their context, but definitionally restrictive in a way that posits a male norm even when the activity spoken of had vast numbers of women involved.

The demand for a male referenced norm occurring because men were not able to be defined by a woman dominant term, but women could be defined by a male dominant one. This is also the case with "guys", which is only a one way generic referent. A group of women can be referred to as "gals", "ladies", "chicks", and so on, but add even the potential inclusion of even one man and those terms are all but in the rarest cases no longer acceptable.

"Guys" is a weak synonym in such cases for the limits placed on it by whether or not a man might be included and may even not be synonymous when dealing with mixed groups if the speaker is only intending to reference the women within the group, rather than the group as a whole, to avoid confusion in saying "guys" without meaning to include men or in any suggestion of using a term that could include men to only refer to women if men are present.

That "guys" also frequently carries a sense of lightly pleading familiarity in its use, that is to say it is often used as a signal in attempting to affirm a group identity from a place of being momentarily outside of that group, most notably perhaps in the plaintive stand alone use of "You guys!" as a whined protest against feeling left out or picked on, or more mildly in the urgent or mock urgent use of "Guys! Guys!" as a signal for attention, but also just in how its more general use tends to carry an understanding of the speaker knowing the group being referenced, rather than being a complete outsider, and either asserting a place of connection to the group or allowing that group is understood as having some moderate notice or importance to the speaker. It is a term that generally seems to be used to seek or affirm inclusion, which kinda points to part of the issue with it.

Even if you don't accept that notion, the more important element here is that you absolutely cannot speak of what words mean absent the context of the social order in which they are employed as that relationship is crucial to understanding their use. What people may think about their use of the words, the understanding of the words within the culture of the time, and the ease of communication are not going to provide the whole context absent an examination of the values in which that communication takes place.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:47 PM on August 29 [5 favorites]


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