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IDEAS

May I have a word: Tackling the ‘you plural’ problem

Listen up, you guys: Y’all need a better way to refer to a group of people.

French actresses Catherine Deneuve, left, and Dominique Lavanant chat at Fouquet's brasserie in Paris in 1983. Would you call them "guys"?PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP via Getty Images

Last time, reader Jeff Kaufman asked “about addressing groups or clusters or couples of people,” adding, “Everyone says guys, even in somewhat elegant settings, such as a relatively expensive restaurant.”

A few readers wrote me about you guys itself — mostly to express their contempt for it.

Karen Long, of Concord, announced: “I despise the word. It’s lazy, inappropriate, and, well, incorrect, if there are gals present. And using gals, or girls (!), is dangerous. The gender police could be lurking.”

Elizabeth Sommers reported: “As someone involved in the women’s health movement of the 1970s, I eradicated the term guys from my vocabulary. Although I thought everyone agreed on this, the use of the term is epidemic today. My ears cringe whenever I hear it.”

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And Margo Howard, who for 16 years was a widely syndicated and beloved advice columnist, weighed in: “How times change, or maybe it’s me. When I was Dear Prudence, I went all out to say guys should not be used in a refined setting.”

A multitude of readers mentioned y’all, some favorably, others not so much.

Sally De Fazio, of Cambridge, reported learning the locution in the 1970s, when she was working at NASA, in Houston. “When I wanted to ask a group a question, I’d begin, ‘Do you folks . . .’ Eventually I realized that the locals said the same thing more economically: ‘Do y’all . . .’”

Peter Sussman, of Berkeley, Calif., wrote: “It would send chills up my spine if this particular regional dialect gained any more currency, but there is an existing remedy in the South for the ‘you plural’ problem: y’all. I hate myself for calling this to your attention.”

And John Parsons, of Durham, N.H., asserted — wryly, I’m guessing — that “many speakers in the South solve this by using y’all as singular and all y’all as plural.”

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However, Sandy68, in the online comments, had this to say: “Funny, I was reading a thread on a forum last night where it was stated that southerners look down on non-southerners using the term y’all. They don’t even like it when used by someone who is half southern.”

What’s more, y’all who like y’all, have you forgotten that the guy who requested the term specified that it should be appropriate “even in somewhat elegant settings, such as a relatively expensive restaurant”? Let’s say our party, which includes Catherine Deneuve, has just arrived at Fouquet’s, in Paris. The maître d’, recognizing some of us as mere Anglophones, says, “May I show y’all to your table?”

No way. The mind reels.

Virginia L. Collins-English, of Wilbraham, told me: “For decades I have used gentlepeople in both speech and written correspondence. It is inclusive and respectful, and it often has a gentling, softening effect on receivers — surely a desirable outcome in these challenging times.”

Dave Harrington, of Plymouth, and Jane Cogswell, of Concord, N.H., both proposed yous, neither of them in a particularly serious way. Which got me thinking, which in turn led me off into a flurry of research online, which in turn turned up a 2014 article by Rob Pensalfini, who teaches in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Pensalfini pointed out that as recently as 400 years ago, English had distinct second-person pronouns for singular (thee, thou) and plural (you).

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As Jeff Kaufman reminded us two weeks ago, the now standard conflation of the two can get confusing. And that’s why, “independently in many varieties of English around the world,” Pensalfini reported, a way to distinguish singular from plural has been reintroduced. Rather than reverting to the ancient terms for the singulars, English-speakers have coined a new plural such as youse (in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and Scotland), yinz (Pittsburgh, parts of UK), and y’all (American South, West Indies, and Alberta).

Pensalfini explained: “Some folks starting using it and, because it filled a need, it spread. . . . Youse (or yous) is simply a regular ‘add an ‘s’ plural, y’all is a contraction of the phrase you all, and yinz appears to be a contraction of you ones. . . . [I]n Kriol, an Aboriginal language of the Northern Territory, the plural yumob comes from you mob.

Make of all this what you will, I’m awarding Dave and Jane bragging rights for pointing me in this direction and Pensalfini special commendation for his expertise on the subject. Good job, um, youse!

Now Rachel Wadsworth, of Sunderland, asks for a name for “the feeling that you are forgetting something.”

If you suddenly remember such a word, do tell. And if don’t, you’re more than welcome to coin one. Send it to me at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com by noon on Friday, Jan. 7, and kindly include where you live.

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Barbara Wallraff is a writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and London.