English language Uncategorized

It’s a guys’ thing

Q: I frequently hear people use the expression “your guys,’ ” as in “I’ll be at your guys’ house later.” To me this is completely wrong, but I have been challenged by someone who is allegedly the author of a few books (not on grammar).

A: You’ve hit upon an unusual problem in English syntax, or word order. What is the plural possessive of the informal phrase “you guys”? There are three possibilities:

(1) “Guys” is the principal word and “you” modifies it. Example: “I’ll be at you guys’ house later.”

(2) “You” and “guys” are both principal words (technically, the two words are in apposition). Example: “I’ll be at your guys’ house later.”

(3) “You guys” is a compound pronoun (something like “you-all” or “y’all”) and just happens to end in “s.” Example: “I’ll be at you guys’s house later.”

I’m going to eliminate # 3 right off the bat because “guys’s” is a malformed plural possessive, plain and simple. Since “guys” is already plural, we make it possessive by adding an apostrophe alone, not an apostrophe plus “s.”

That leaves #1 and #2, and I’m coming down on the side of #1: “I’ll be at you guys’ house later.” The word “you” here modifies “guys”; it serves an adjectival function, telling us which guys are being discussed.

Syntactically “you guys” is no different from “the guys” or “local guys” or “French guys.” Or, for that matter, from “you girls” or “you folks.” We make any of them possessive by adding an apostrophe to the plural. No need to make the modifier possessive too.

Is “you guys” legit? Dictionaries describe it as a dialectal plural form of “you,” which makes it a valuable tool for people who don’t like using “you” as both singular and plural.

Granted, “you guys” is informal. But even informal usages deserve the dignity of a little consideration.

As for the possessive “your guys,’ ” it may not be strictly legit, but a lot of people use it.

In fact, the linguist Arnold Zwicky says on the Language Log website that he heard it for the first time at the 2005 meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, “where one commenter on a paper referred repeatedly to your guys’ analysis.”

“A little while later I heard Barry Bonds use this possessive (referring to the reporters at a press conference), then found piles of examples on the net, and collected some more examples from the speech of graduate students and colleagues,” Zwicky reports.

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