A quick grammar lesson on the word y’all

The “love y’all” mural at Pencil + Paper Co. in Nashville, TN | @muralsmuralseverywhere

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Good morning, Chattanooga — Trista here. 👋 I’m somewhat of a grammar + language fiend and I love learning about the origin of words (a.k.a. etymology). The Grammar Girl podcast is one of my all-time faves. So needless to say, I was pretty excited to write about one of the South’s favorite words: y’all.

While the word y’all is ubiquitous among native Southerners, I’ve had teachers, friends, and acquaintances tell me it’s not a word at all. (And that’s false.)

Unlike many languages, English lacks a second-person plural, so the word “you” can be used to address a single person or a group of people. For clarity, many American English speakers in regions around the country have adopted the phrase “you all” to indicate a multitude, and y’all just so happens to be a grammatically-acceptable contraction of that (although similar words like you’uns or youse are typically less adored by strict grammarians). 

But there are rules, y’all. As with any linguistic contraction — think I’m, she’s, won’t, we’ve — the apostrophe replaces letters that are missing from the full word or phrase. Since y’all is the abbreviated form of “you all,” the apostrophe is placed where the o + u are missing. Thus, y’all not ya’ll.

Another benefit of using it? It’s totally gender neutral.

If y’all are interested in learning more about the history of this or other Southern dialectisms, check out the following titles: the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, The Companion to Southern Literature + Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.