The Grammar of Y'all

I just finished yet another book with a colorful Southern character added for interest by an author who didn’t learn the proper use of “y’all.” The book lost its chance to be reviewed here.

Even the seventh grade boys in my class in Zion Elementary School in Pontotoc County, Mississippi knew that “y’all” is the plural of “you.” I remember their protests when Mrs. Rogers tried to inform us that “you” is both singular and plural. I had already been enlightened about this ambivalent use of “you” and had been given permission by my grammar police parents to use “y’all” in friendly conversation as long as I used “you” properly in writing and for formal occasions.

I sat back and enjoyed the boys’ rejoinders with our teacher. I felt like the guys had a couple of valid points. “How in the world will people know if you mean one or more than one?” and “Why don’t we just share ‘y’all’ with the rest of the world and give them an easy way to make it clear whether they are talking to one person or several?”

I’ve been on this soapbox before with people who are “not from here” and have assured me they have heard Southerners use “y’all” for just one, perhaps at a door when only one person was leaving. Maybe the hostess said, “Now, y’all come.” The interpretation remains the same. The hostess was really saying, “You come back to see us with your mama, your daddy, your grandparents, your six children, your weird uncle, your cousin-twice-removed . . .” In the South, we are nothing if not hospitable.

Now as long as I am on this kick, let’s take care of that apostrophe. This is not rocket science. An apostrophe goes where the letters are missing. My eleventh edition Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary lists the definition of “y’all” as “you all.” (I hope you noticed the plural connotation here.) Therefore, the letters missing are “ou” which means the apostrophe goes between the “y” and the “all.” If you don’t get this punctuation right, let me warn you that my parents have a grammar police granddaughter with a radar gun for this one.

Now that I have cleared all this up, let me say to my blog readers, and I certainly hope there are more than one, “Y’all come back. Y’hear?”  

[If I were Aesop, I would add a moral: If one is writing outside one’s region or culture, it pays to be super careful to get it right and not offend those who belong to it.]