groupword

Y’all? Yinz? Rat Bastards? In Search of the Perfect Gender-Inclusive Plural Noun

How to change up your ‘guy’-centric speech patterns

Something I’m getting better at, or so I like to think, is remembering people’s preferred pronouns. And if I haven’t learned them yet, a singular “they” is an easy, reliable maneuver. Contrary to a lot of the right-wing panic over the state of gender in 2019, it’s not remarkably onerous labor to exercise some consciousness in how we speak regarding identity. The wild thing is that once you start paying attention, you notice all the gendered aspects of language. To make the goofiest goddamn analogy: It’s like when Neo can finally see the Matrix as code. 

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One issue you’ll soon hit upon is how to address a group of individuals. You may not even realize how often you drop “hey guys,” a greeting that now feels somewhat antiquated and can certainly rub someone the wrong way — the lone woman in a male-dominated workplace, for example. Years ago, I’m sure I would have defended “guys” as a collective noun that doesn’t imply maleness, and many still argue this; “lads” appears to hold a similar meaning across the pond. The idea is that semantics and context are flexible enough to make anyone an eligible “guy” or “lad.” But given that elasticity, why not stretch ourselves in a new direction? These terms may be practically gender-neutral, yet they still derive from a mindset of “male” as the human default. Besides, we can admit they’re boring.      

TV writer Ellory Smith showed us a way out of this trap by — how else? — kicking off a Twitter thread. The replies (and her own suggestion) confirmed that we live among a secret abundance of awesome idiom.

As you’ve noticed, the gorgeously evocative “rat bastards” set the tone for more light insults in a similar vein: the unspoken premise of the tweet is that we’re speaking to a group of close friends, not a conference room or city council, fitting as that might be. And friendship, done the correct way, inspires a kind of affectionate teasing, shit-talking, etc. We love our buddies, so we have the honor of calling them nerds, knowing we belong to the same overall nerd-herd. It’s a behavior heightened to ridiculous extremes in a sketch from I Think You Should Leave, where Vanessa Bayer workshops increasingly vulgar and graphic — but always ungendered! — captions for an Instagram brunch photo. 

However, with people outside a circle of confidence, or in a professional setting, the blue material isn’t advised. Better to play it safe and simple: “All right, everyone” does the trick. “Folks” has, well, a folksier sound, and the same goes for “y’all,” an eternally useful Southern contraction. I’d also vouch for the mid-Atlantic variant “youse,” though it’s a bit harder to pull off the mafioso accent than a cowboy drawl.

In Atlas Obscura, writer Dan Nosowitz points out that while these regional plural nouns (y’all, youse, yinz, you’uns) have long been regarded as grammatically improper, each is an “amateur linguistic fix” that patches the third-person “he/she” problem English. Which is to say: We barely need a focused approach to gender-neutral group phrases, because we’ve subconsciously invented loads already. What remains is to accept them into the canon of formally “accepted” American English — to let the shape of language evolve. 

In truth, conversation is just more fun this way. There’s nothing to stop you from addressing your “dudes” or “the boys” when that’s who’s hanging out, but ask yourself: Do you always want to see those guys through a lens of wolfpack masculinity? Is their gender expression the source of your connection, or does the bond run deeper? If so, embrace the colloquial adventure and play around with your speech. “Sup, ya mob of kangaroos” is on the table, I believe. Every dialect has its prescriptivists, but there are no actual rules.

Except that, for some reason, it’s always hilarious to refer to your pals as a type of “bags.” Go figure.