Another View of You Guys (1983)

Sarah Lawson suggest that guys "could be called a 'register particle,' that is, a kind of morpheme which serves only to establish or maintain a register or subregister of speech" (American Speech 57 [1982]: 158). I have expressed a different view elsewhere (1980). It is my impression that in almost all of the United States you guys is simply the unmarked plural of you. When other second person plurals are found, it is those forms that are marked in some way: you-all as Southern, you as formal; you folks and you people as formal, but not too formal, the former in Utah and elsewhere, the latter in New York City (and elsewhere).

Dictionaries of American English tyically list you-all as a pronoun, labeled "regional" or "Southern." You guys, the most frequently used second-person plural pronoun in the United States, is not, as of this writing, found in most dictionaries. Bryant, like Lawson, considers it a colloquial form: "The lack of a distinctive plural second-person pronoun, caused by the obsolescence of thou, is compensated in various ways. Most common is adding a plural noun in close apoosition, as in you men, you girls, you people, you folks, or colloquial you guys" (1962, p.238).

That was no doubt correct in 1962, when you guys was, for me, an indication that the speaker was a Westerner, probably a Californian. Since that time, you guys has become general everywhere but in the South, and guys is no longer analogous to men, girls, people or folks, but exists in you guys only as a plural marker.

When we say you people or you folks, people and folks have the same range of meanings as in other contexts. The case of guys is quite different, since the noun guys can only be masculine. Guys may refer to women as well as men only in the cocative, a point recognized by Lawson but apparently not by Shapiro. (1979/80). In such cases, guys was originally short for you guys. Thus Cut it out, you guys is identical in meaning with Cut it out, guys. In both cases, guys is a plural marker rather than a register particle, although in some regions where you guys is a recent innovation, such as New York, guys may serve both functions simultaneously.

The pronominalization of you guys and the loss of the lexical meaning of guys happened simultaneously. Indeed they are two aspects of a simgle linguistic change: guys has become an allo-morph of the plural morpheme, occurring after you or as a free morpheme when used in the vocative.

In Hawaiian Creole a subsequent change has taken place. Guys is simply the plural morpheme replacing older them or dem. According to William A. Stewart (personal communication), guys was first used only with animate nounds, e.g. horse guys = 'horses', but since 1920 or so has been used with inanimate nouns as well: house guys = 'houses'.

As is the case with you-all, you guys has not been entirely integrated into the pronominal system. Robert Ilson (personal letter, 5 May 80) points out that one cannot say *These books are yours guys. Nor can one form such appositives as *You guys linguists. The former example shows that in the possessive case, the syncretism of formal standard English still exists. The latter example is impossible because linguists is already plural and English does not allow redundant plurals ending in -s.

Lawson and Shapiro, by considering the common gender of guys as an isolated phenomenon, have underestimated the magnitude of the linguistic change that has taken place. The rapid spread of you guys through the United States during the last decade is the only major change in the pronominal system of English that has occurred since the loss of thou and thee four centuries ago.


Bryant, Margaret M., ed. 1962. Current American English.
New York: Funk and Wagnalls.

Jochnowitz, George. 1980. "The You-Guysing of America."
New York Daily News, 22 April, p. 32.

Lawson, Sarah. 1982. "Guy and guys." American Speech 57: 157-58

Shapiro, Norman R. 1979/80. "Watching All the Guys Go By."
Verbatim 6.3: 925-26.

This article first appeared in American Speech (1983) 58: 68-69.

It was reprinted in California Linguistic Notes, Fall-Winter 1991.