Q: I was an English major (Florida State University, class of ’82) and boy am I glad I found y’all because THINGS HAVE CHANGED. However, I don’t see anything in the new Woe Is I about “y’all.” Can I use it in writing? I’m not kidding.
A: We say go for it in casual writing.
We don’t recommend it for use in formal contexts. But “y’all” is, after all, merely a contraction of the regionalism “you all.” And contractions have been around since Anglo-Saxon days.
A good rule to follow would be to use it in writing to people you’d be comfortable using it with in speech.
Modern English, unlike some other languages, has only one form of “you” for both singular and plural. So how did “you all” arise in the South as a second-person plural of “you”?
It’s been suggested by some linguists that “you all,” “you uns” (a Pittsburgh expression), and “yous” or “youse” (heard in the East) may have originated as attempts to differentiate the singular “you” from the plural “you.”
In Old English, in fact, there were four ways of expressing “you”-ness: the singulars “thou” and “thee,” and the plurals “ye” and “you.” The Anglo-Saxons used “thou” and “ye” as subjects, “thee” and “you” as objects.
But by the end of the 16th century, the all-purpose “you” was firmly established as standard English, though some “thee”-ing and “thou”-ing survived, notably among the Quakers and in rural dialects.
This brief history of “you” comes from Origins of the Specious, a book we’ve written about language myths and misconceptions.