I recently composed a difficult professional email while on vacation with my family. As I read it aloud, my beloved aunt winced.
“You’re not going to write ‘y’all’ are you?,” she asked.
I hesitated in embarrassment. I hadn’t questioned whether I should include the word in casual work-related correspondence before, but now I second-guessed myself.
My husband replied promptly, “That’s part of Lelia’s brand. Casual use of the word y’all is mentioned in her bio.”
He’s not wrong, the last line of my bio reads, “A New Orleans native and enthusiast, Lelia freely uses the word ‘y’all’, has an entire closet dedicated to costuming, and brings the city's joie de vivre to all of her presentations.”
It took my husband mentioning this to our aunt for me to regain my footing.
‘Y’all’ as an Advantage
I’m a 5th generation New Orleanian, and my mother’s grandparents spoke Cajun French at home. I can’t even feign a quality Cajun accent, but I come by the word ‘y’all’ honestly, and I don’t want to lose that. Furthermore, I’ve been told it can be a professional advantage.
A rep at a speakers bureau I work with saw my occasional accent and use of the word ‘y’all’ as an effective differentiator. Since so many speakers sound alike, he told me that my speech patterns could be a subtle hook – which is why the word appears in my bio.
‘Y’all’ is also very practical. Grammatically, there’s no other second-person plural pronoun in English, which may also cause the word to reach greater popularity outside of the south.
As “you guys” falls out of favor for its lack of gender neutrality, some organizations are encouraging people to switch to “y’all” as an alternative, according to a recent Atlantic article. People have even customized responses in the messaging app Slack to recommend the word ‘y’all’ for its gender neutrality. When someone writes “Hey guys,” a bot asks follow up questions, like “Did you mean y’all?” or other options, such as, “Did you mean team?”
As many a linguist and casual observer may note, the word and the Southern accent itself come with its share of biases.
As a child growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Stephen Colbert decided he wasn’t going to have a Southern accent. He once said, “When I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a Southern accent. And that's not true. Southern people are not stupid. But I didn't wanna seem stupid. I wanted to seem smart.”
An enterprising kiddo, he realized you couldn’t tell where newsmen were from, so followed their lead. Adult Colbert’s accent is neutral and ‘y’all’ is lacking from his vocabulary.
Linguist John McWhorter told the Atlantic, “You can’t use [y’all] at a board meeting.”
When asked if increased usage might adjust the informality of ‘y’all’, McWhorter replied, "That's not going to change, especially because it's associated with two things: the South and black people.” He went on to reference the biases people have against both groups and described both groups as being considered “informal”.
While McWhorter’s perspective may reflect the future of the word, I’m more aligned with author Vann R. Newkirk II. In his article, “America Needs ‘Y’all’”, Newkirk hopes that the increased usage of ‘y’all’ will “ease some of the regional and racial stigmatization of language and slang.”
I ultimately decided to push back against both my aunt and McWhorter’s admonitions against ‘y’all’ in professional communication.
Yes, this was professional correspondence, but it felt particularly important to me in this instance. While providing difficult written feedback, I consciously wanted to convey warmth and a natural conversational style, which is inherently challenging in email correspondence.
Furthermore, this is a client I’d been working with for years, and they’d hired me to write for them in part because of my personality and cadence. One of the best pieces of feedback I’ve gotten about my writing style is that I’m “voicey”. My colleague and fellow writer Anya Groner, told me “I could read any Lelia sentence and know that you wrote it.”
Perhaps my client read my email and thought, “What a hick!” or “How unprofessional.” More likely, they read my email and heard my voice, which is precisely what I was going for.