How to Use 'Y'all' Correctly

sweet tea in a jar
 Photo credit: Getty Images/Beverly LeFevre

It's as Southern as eating cornbread, sipping sweet tea, and swatting mosquitos on a porch in the summertime: using the word "y'all." Whether you're a lifelong Southerner, Yankee transplant, or just passing through, you're most likely familiar with this basic Southern saying, but do you know how to use it correctly? 

'Y'all' vs. 'Ya'll': Is There Really a Difference?

The answer is yes. "Ya'll" is just dead wrong. There is only one correct way to spell or use "y'all," so 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.

How the Saying Originated and Evolved

While "y'all" is actually a contraction for "you all" and is therefore technically correct, 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" (common in most of the Northern United States), "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.

Other Ways to Use Y'all

English speakers aren't just limited to "y'all" to convey their meaning. "All y'all" (or "all of y'all") on the other hand, is an 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?"
  • "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" whereas others will spell it "y'alls." Because there does not seem to be an official answer, it is a matter of personal preference.

Is It Really Acceptable?

Although "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. So use it without fear when speaking with friends—especially in the South—but avoid it in college papers or professional communications.