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The Second-Person Plural Pronoun



The Second-Person Plural Pronoun

The shame of modern English's lack of a second-person plural is that the damage is self-inflicted.

Basic pronouns, modern English
Singular Plural
First I/me/my/mine We/us/our/ours
Second You/you/your/yours N/A
Third He/she, him/her, his/her, his/hers They/them/their/theirs

You can address or refer to anyone using the pronouns on the above table, unless you are directly addressing a group. In that case, you are forced to either:

1) Say only "you" and hope people infer that you meant the whole group
2) Use a lengthy combination of words: "you all", "all of you people", "you guys", "ladies and gentlemen", "to the group of human beings I am addressing"
3) Invent a new word: "y'all", "youse", "yinz", "youins"

There's an ongoing debate about which of these solutions is best. What is little-known is that we have had a solution to this all along, and the cause of our problem is cultural niceties.

Before discussing that, I feel it is helpful and educational to bring up the basic system of Spanish pronouns. This is what helped me to understand the history and development of our English language, by the parallel to another well-known language. The list will not be complete, but it will be enough to give a brief overview.

Basic pronoun forms, modern Spanish
Singular Plural
First Yo Nosotros
Second Tú, usted Vosotros (in Spain only), ustedes
Third Él/ella Los/las

At a glance, you can see that Spanish has all of the major fields covered, and then some. Why the extra 'usted' form, though?

The short answer is, words have connotations beyond their grammatical usage. These forms are either 'familiar' or 'formal'. 'Usted' is the form you use when addressing someone who is socially superior, or perhaps someone else you don't want to risk offending. (The corresponding English practice these days is to generously sprinkle 'sir', 'ma'am', or 'miss' through your sentences.)

The problem with having 'formal' and 'familiar' forms is the duality; if 'formal' language indicates respect and an acknowledgement of social standing, what does using the 'familiar' form imply?

Back when social statuses were clearly delineated, this wasn't a problem, but as the world became democratized, using usted/ustedes became the practice in most of the Spanish-speaking world. Only Spain still uses the 'vosotros' form, and this distinction, speaking "el español del rey", would cause you to stand out in a Latino crowd.

With this foundation laid, let's have another look at English, or rather, English as it was.

Basic pronouns, Elizabethan English
Singular Plural
First I/me/my/mine We/us/our/ours
Second Thou/thee/thy/thine Ye/you/your/yours
Third He/she, him/her, his/her, his/hers They/them/their/theirs

These should be familiar to anyone who has read either the King James Version Bible or Shakespeare. Because those sources are also likely to be the only place they are seen, they are misunderstood, to the point that 'thees and thous' have become a byword for things which are considered complicated, archaic, and 'unnecessary'.

People know the 'thou' form because it is a pronoun used to address God in the KJV, but they don't know why it is used. The reason is shown in the above chart: it is the second-person singular pronoun, and God is a single person, so when someone is directly addressing God, correct Elizabethan grammar demands that form. Meanwhile, the ye form is like the modern-day 'y'all'.

We lost this system for the same reason that the Spanish language was transformed: the forms acquired connotations of respect or disrespect, and people switched to using the 'formal' form all the time. English doesn't have a dedicated formal form, so 'you' was made to do double-duty, as either the second-person plural or the formal second-person singular. I suspect the logic behind that choice was like that of the 'royal we'.

Incidentally, the King James' English is said to have been archaic even for its time. When the translators were putting together the work, the thees and thous were on their way out; they chose to stick with those words on the grounds that it was the most direct translation of the original pronouns (which it was, and still is). This choice was said to get criticism from readers who felt that the use of the familiar 'thee' and 'thou' disrespected God.

At any rate, people forgot over time that 'you' was supposed to be a second-person plural, which meant that we ceased to have one. But there are inevitably cases where that form of grammar is helpful, which has since become obvious. Thus, we now have a plethora of conjunctions designed to address this need, as alluded to at the beginning of this post.

The trouble is that they all have the same problem as what got 'thou' canned in the first place: they're perceived to be informal!

The more things change, the more they stay the same...