Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Lesson of Y'all

Want to get a restless writing class to pay attention? Teach them the Lesson of Y'all.

What's the "Lesson of Y'all"? It starts with a multiple choice question.
Which one of these words is grammatically correct: y'all or ain't?

a. Ain't
b. Y'all

c. Neither

d. Both
Almost no one guesses a, and only a few contrarians will say d, mostly to be different. But the most common response is c, even though the correct answer is b.

(If that's a surprise to you, let me say it again: y'all is 100% grammatically correct. It's simply a contraction of you and all.)

Now after you announce the right answer, students will challenge you. They will scramble for a dictionary. If they have laptops, they will go to Google. And if they're adult students, they will insist that y'all
can't be grammatically correct because Flo from Alice used y'all all the time.

But here's where the Lesson of Y'all really gets interesting. Ask your students if the word
isn't is grammatically correct. Or doesn't. And once you can show how y'all is simply a contraction, no better or worse than isn't or doesn't, you can absolutely change their perceptions about language. And when you can discuss how the inferior status of the word y'all basically stems from a bias against southern accents, which itself stems from the Civil War, you can teach them quite a bit about history and class consciousness.

The Lesson of Y'all, in a nutshell, is that many of the so-called "rules" of communication often come down to preference. Just as important, the Lesson of Y'all can help demystify grammar and show why many of the rules truly do exist for a reason. After all, once a student understands that y'all is simply a contraction of you and all, it becomes very difficult to defend ain't.

Call it the Lesson of Y'all. Call it the Lesson of Flo. Call it whatever you want. Just don't say that y'all ain't grammatically correct.


Jon Swerens said...

Great post, Anthony! I grew up in northern West Virginia, not far from Pittsburgh, right along the fault line between "you," "y'all" and "yinz," as in, "Are yinz guys going to the football game?"

Here's an article on the interesting history of "yinz."

Anthony Juliano said...

Thanks, Jon! I'd never heard of yinz, so it was fun to read the Wiki article. I may start working "yinz" into conversations just for the heck of it.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Pittsburgh, and yinz better not be making fun of us 'burghers!

I can hear a Pittsburgher across a restaurant - that is one distinctive accent. Gotta love that tahn. (see www.pittsburhese,com for more . . .)

Fun blog, Anthony! Thanks!

Kristen Guthrie

Anonymous said...

whoops - . . .