Op-Ed: Moving on from "you guys"

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 4:48pm

“Are you guys ready to move on?” Looking back, it’s an odd thing for me to say to a mostly-female physics study group. But it wasn’t until it was pointed out to me at a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training seminar that I began to question the ubiquity of America’s favorite second-person plural pronoun, “You guys.” A second-person plural pronoun is used to address or refer to a group of people you are talking to. Basically, it’s the plural form of “you.”

“You guys” has been criticized by a remarkably intersectional audience, from California tech startups to senior citizens. In 2002, Sherryl Kleinman, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina,  described the term as, “a reinforcer of a system in which ‘man’ in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women." Defenders of “you guys” often justify its use by stating that it’s usually intended and understood to be gender-neutral when used to address people. “Guys” in this case has been bleached.

In other words, because it is seen as gender-neutral in this usage, it has lost part of its original gendered meaning. But does bleaching “you guys” make it unproblematic?

When I was growing up, similar logic was used to explain, if not defend, the use of “gay” as a pejorative (e.g. “those shoes are gay”). In 2008, a compiler of a slang dictionary told the BBC that “gay” has “nothing at all to do with hostility to homosexuals,” and that it was “nearly always used in contexts where sexual orientation and sexuality are completely irrelevant.” This is a technically correct description of how the term is used as a pejorative, but the distinction did little to assuage my feelings of isolation as a bisexual teenager. It was effectively impossible for me to separate the bleached meaning of “gay” from the non-bleached meaning, despite being told to explicitly and implicitly.

I think the same is true for “you guys.” Though “you guys” has become gender-neutral, “guys” is decidedly not gender-neutral in all contexts. As one acerbic Twitter user points out: “If you think ‘guys’ is gender-neutral, ask a straight man how many guys he’s slept with.” So, at least for me, it’s hard to divorce the gender-neutral use of “you guys” from gendered uses of “guys” in general.

Nevertheless, replacing “you guys” is still quite difficult — after 20 years of saying it, it’s hard to avoid slipping it in, especially when I’m not specifically focusing on avoiding it. Part of the reason why “you guys” has so much staying power is a lack of alternatives. English hasn’t had a universal second-person plural pronoun since we ditched the singular “thou,” and the originally plural “you” began to be used primarily as the singular second-person pronoun. Other terms are regionally popular in the U.S., such as “yins” in urban Pennsylvania, “yous/youse” in coastal New England, and of course, “y’all” in the South and elsewhere. Of course, we all have perceptions about regional dialects which may make it difficult to adopt a regional term. “You all” has become my preferred pronoun instead of my native “you guys,” as to me, it seems regionally neutral and sufficiently warm.

Of course, some may wonder why I’m picking this battle instead of focusing on more important subjects. “You guys” does seem pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things. But that innocuity is precisely what drives people like Sherryl Kleinman to label “you guys” as the “most insidious” example of sexist language. There are certainly worse things to call women than a “guy,” but these worse terms are often policed and immediately called out. “You guys” isn’t.

Some might also wonder why I don’t focus on “actual issues” rather than just words. But changing the way we use language is one of the few things that anyone can do to combat those “actual issues.” I can’t solve the gender wage gap by personally implementing sweeping policy changes, but I can, for instance, stop using “you guys” to address my mostly-female physics study group in order to combat attitudes that STEM is a male domain.

Changing “you guys” is ultimately not as difficult a task as it seems. “You guys” has been in existence for only 100 years, and has been popular for only about 50. Furthermore, there’s been some demand for more gender-inclusive language on the University of Michigan campus, as Central Student Government passed a resolution last year encouraging the use of more inclusive terms. And language change can happen in relatively short periods. Back when my parents were in college, “he” was prescribed by many sources as the most acceptable pronoun to use when referring to someone of indeterminate gender (“the male embraces the female,” don’t you know?). That’s changed. Perhaps 30 years from now, the defenses of “you guys” will be seen as equally quaint, perhaps not. But, in any case, I’m ready to move on.

Jason Dean is a senior English and Ecology/Evolutionary Biology major in LSA and can be reached at jasdean@umich.edu.