Mighty Red Pen

June 25, 2008

Just one of the guys

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:28 pm
Tags: ,

Here’s a little something MRP came across the other day in Jan Freeman’s excellent column. In “When Girls are ‘Guys’: News from the Battle Over You, Plural,” Freeman takes a stab at making sense of the debate over whether using “you guys” to refer to a group of girls or women is sexist.

Some of the naysayers are objecting, at least partly, to the informality of “you guys.” But even people who don’t mind that — and who address women friends as “you guys” — are still debating a deeper question: whether that usage, which has been increasingly common since the 1940s, is sexist.

This question has been simmering for a while. Twenty years ago, the New York Times published an op-ed article arguing that including women in “you guys” was just like subsuming them in the generic “man” and “he” of textbooks: It treated women as a subset of men, not as equals. . . .

Sexism is not the motivation for “you guys,” of course. Scholars generally agree that it’s simply an attempt to fill the hole left in English when we abandoned the singular thou and thee.

Having attended a women’s college, where the students were sent into absolute fits over being referred to as, say, chicks, this interested me. Nowadays, while I will edit a sentence that comes across my desk employing “fellow” (as in “fellow editors”) or “man” as a verb (as in, “they manned the table”), in speech, I regularly use you guys as a plural form of you.

It’s not done completely without a second thought, but what’s the alternative? You gals or you girls, if it’s a group of females? You hes-and-shes, if it’s a mixed group?

Anyway, I mean, it never bugged me as a kid when Rita Moreno used to shout it on “Electric Company.” So . . . what do you guys think?



  1. Well there’s the generic “you people”, but then you come off seeming a bit too quirky. Alternately, you can use an adjective to describe the people: “you bastards” or “hey, sports fans!” as my dad often says (even though none of us were really sports fans). If you’re in the south, “y’all” seems to work well and avoid any gender specificity. “You folks”, maybe?

    I always think of the Electric Company yell, too, but I was too young to remember anything real specific about that show short of Spider-Man, Easy Reader, and the counting-to-12 song.

    Comment by tk. — June 26, 2008 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  2. I use “you guys” all the time, whether I’m talking to men, women, or some combination of the two. And I’ve never been offended when someone used “you guys” to refer to a group I was in. Somehow, “you guys” just FEELS gender-neutral to me. I mean, I know it has the word “guys” in there and all, and I can imagine why some women might be offended by it, but it just doesn’t ping my gen-dar. (Get it? “Gender” + “radar” = “gendar”? Oh, yeah. That one’s TOTALLY going to catch on. Any minute now.)

    Comment by Editrix — June 26, 2008 @ 11:28 am | Reply

  3. 🙂 Maybe we have it right in the south (we will do something the lazy way because it’s just too hot to do it the hard way):
    y’all = those of you right here
    all y’all = those of you right here and everyone you know

    Comment by georgia girl — June 26, 2008 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  4. Yes, I’m with Georgia Girl. It’s obvious that MRP doesn’t live south of the Mason-Dixon line, where the answer is logical and clear: it’s “y’all” fer sure. (No, that was not a typo.) Not only is it plural, it’s inclusive, meaning not sexist, even though down here we’re not quite so obsessed with political correctness as y’all…

    Comment by Granny — June 27, 2008 @ 10:14 pm | Reply

  5. Sure there’s something to the sexism angle. But I find that “you guys” really shines when I don’t know (or have utterly forgotten) who the hell I’m talking about, let alone their genders or names.

    It’s also vital for shirking tasks. I can’t count the number of times that I was sure one of “you guys” was supposed to pick up the tab, clean the fish tank or grade the term papers. In fact, without “you guys” I’m quite convinced that nothing would get done at all.


    Comment by ducksanddrakes — June 27, 2008 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

  6. I think I would probably use ‘folks’ or ‘people’ instead of ‘guys’ – but because ‘guys’ is (to my ears) very American, rather than because it is sexist.

    MRP, would you really edit ‘fellow’ and ‘man’ (as a verb)? Wow. What about ‘research fellow’? And you know that the universal sense of ‘man’ (as in ‘mankind’, for example) predates the use of ‘man’ to mean ‘adult male’?

    Comment by JD — June 28, 2008 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  7. @JD, Yeah, I do know that, but gender-neutral language is one peeve I do allow myself (and I’ve worked in a few places that really encouraged this tendency). I don’t go to extremes over it, but if there is a better way to say “fellow” or “to man,” then I will try to change it. “Research fellow” would I guess fall under the category of “there isn’t a better way to say it,” I suppose.

    There was one extreme example at one place I worked where people spent a significant amount of time trying to find an alternative to “manmade” as in “manmade disasters.” There was just no way around that: human-made? Person-made? No thanks.

    I’d be interested in what others think on this.

    Comment by mighty red pen — June 28, 2008 @ 6:11 pm | Reply

  8. […] on the sports team he coaches what they thought about him referring to them as guys made me want to revisit the issue. Are you comfortable with using guys when you are referring to a group of women or do you object on […]

    Pingback by Hey, you guys! « Mighty Red Pen — March 24, 2010 @ 7:21 pm | Reply

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