by Gene Owens
"I recently read that 'y'all' can mean one person or many," said Flo Schneider of Lower Alabama. "I have lived in the South all my 78 years, and never have I heard a Southerner use 'y'all' to address one person."
"Y'all," as all y'all Southerners know, is a contraction of "you" and "all."
"You" can be singular or plural, but it's always used with a plural verb. "All" is definitely plural unless you use it as an adjective before a mass noun: "All the butter is gone; all the cotton is picked."
So when you combine "you" with "all" to make a pronoun, you're talking plural.
Some people will protest that Southerners often say "Y'all come see us" when they're addressing just one person. Such people have no understanding of Southern culture.
When a Southerner says "y'all" to an individual, the pronoun refers to the individual and his extended family. We're saying, in effect, "You come to see us, and bring along your missus, the kids, your mother-in-law and the dog, if you want to."
When Uncle Hadacol catches Erwin Scofflaw among his chickens at 3 a.m., he doesn't say "What are y'all doing in my henhouse?" unless Erwin is accompanied by his brother, Vern. He says "Whatchy doing in my henhouse?"
"Whatchy" is Southern shortspeak for "what are you," and it can apply to just one person. But "y'all" has to refer to two or more.
"We Southern belles go for big handsome men like y'all," said Harriet Beecher as Bubba checked her oil at Wade's Dixieco.
"You're no Southern Belle," said Bubba. "Your accent is New England, and you just said 'y'all' when I'm the only other person around."
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. He has also been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers have named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW's national quarterly. He is now in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
In addition to Greasepit Grammar, he writes a column of commentary and humor from a Southern perspective. The column has been a fixture for many years in the Greensboro, N. C., News-Record and in the Kingsport, Tenn., Times-News.
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