The Grammarphobia Blog

The two of you

Q: Recently I’ve noticed that waiters in restaurants often use the phrase “the two of you” in questions like “Have the two of you decided what you’re having?” This sounds sloppy and grammatically incorrect to me. Your comments?

A: We were editors at the New York Times, and one of the occupational hazards of editing is that perfectly acceptable English begins to look odd after a few hours at the computer.

So we can understand why an expression like “the two of you” may sound weird to you after hearing waiters use it over and over again.

But the usage has been around for quite some time, since well before those waiters picked it up, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

The expression may be a bit informal, but none of the usage guides in our library have a problem with it.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the expression, but it appears in seven of the dictionary’s citations since 1919.

And a Google Timeline search finds numerous appearances of “the two of you” in print since the late 19th century.

The earliest citation in the OED is in a slangy quotation from a story by Harold Charles Witwer in the American Magazine: “If you guys don’t lay off of me I’ll bounce the two of you.”

The latest OED example is from Mike Gayle’s novel Turning Thirty (2000): “Zoë seemed to think that there was definite electricity between the two of you.”

An 1893 example in Google Timeline is from a New Zealand newspaper, the Poverty Bay Herald. A witness in a stabbing trial is quoted as saying, “It was the smallest of the two of you.”

One of the strengths of English is its flexibility. We have many different ways of saying the same thing, or virtually the same thing: each version may have a slightly different nuance.

Take the word “We” at the start of our answer. That was the simplest and most direct way to begin. But we could have started with “We two” or “The two of us” or “Both of us”—all perfectly fine English.

In case you’re interested, we posted a blog item a couple of years ago when a reader complained about Pat’s use of “the both of us” during an appearance on WNYC.

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