How to Use "Y'all" Correctly

Correct use of Y'all
••• Photo credit: Getty Images/Beverly LeFevre.

It's as Southern as cornbread, iced tea, and swatting mosquitos on a porch in the summer time: use of the word "y'all". No matter how long you've lived in Memphis - or the South at large - you are most likely familiar with this basic southern word, but do you know how to use it correctly? Is there truly a difference between ya'll or y'all? (The answer is yes. Ya'll is just dead wrong.)

There is really only one correct way to spell or use y'all, so don't get confused between y'all or ya'll.

Whatever you do, don't use the dreaded "ya'll". You may have heard people say that "y'all isn't proper English, but it's really the misspelled "ya'll" that can get you in trouble.

While "y'all" is actually a contraction for "you all," it is most commonly used in place of the plural form of "you". The apostrophe after the "y" represents the lost "ooo" sound from the letters o and u. This explains why the sometimes-seen "ya'll" spelling is wrong.

General speaking, "you" is the second-person singular pronoun, while "y'all" is Modern English's answer to a second-person plural pronoun. There are other ways to make "you" plural in other parts of the English-speaking world, such as just saying "you guys" (most of the Northern U.S.) "you lot" (Great Britain), or even "youse" (Australia) but even two out of three of these simply add a word to "you".

In Spanish, the second-personal plural pronoun is ustedes or vosotros. 

In informal German, it's ihr. While at one time, English speakers may have used "thou" for their second-person plural, these days we are much more likely to use one of the above examples, unless we are quoting Shakespeare.

"All y'all" or "all of y'all," on the other hand, is a occasional variation some use to mean a group of people (as opposed to just two or three).

 

For example...

  • When speaking to two or three people: "Are y'all going to the movies?"
  • When speaking to several people: "Are all y'all going to the movies?"

Things are further complicated when using the possessive form of the word.

  • For example...
  • Is this y'all's car?"
    or maybe
  • "Is this all y'all's favorite color?"

Note, though, that there is some debate on the spelling of the possessive form of y'all. Some will spell it "y'all's" while others will spell it "y'alls." As there does not seem to be an official answer, it is a matter of personal preference.

While" y'all" is not generally considered appropriate for formal writing, it's not an improper or incorrect term, nor does it indicate a failure to grasp grammar or the English language. It is just another way that language has evolved over time to provide us with a much-needed second-person plural pronoun.

No matter how long you live here, you can be certain that you will leave with "y'all" firmly embedded in your vocabulary. And everywhere you go, it will be a dead giveaway that you once made your home in the South.

Updated by Holly Whitfield August 2017