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June 9th, 2004

You all / reasons why

by Barbara Wallraff

Paul Sutherland, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., writes: “I often hear television journalists use the phrase ‘you all,’ as in ‘It was nice talking with you all.’ I’m having a hard time with how that sounds. I was taught to say ‘It was nice talking with all of you.’ Was I taught by a narrow-minded professor, or are both correct?”

To answer your two questions in order, not really, but yes. We all have our own ways of speaking. Many legitimate speech patterns are possible, and no one uses them all. Ahem -- I hope you noticed those two “alls” I just used.

“All of you” is the more elegant choice; “you all” is folksier and common in the South. But both expressions seem superfluous if you know a certain odd fact about the history of our language. In Old English, someone who was addressing one person called him or her “thou.” “You” was a plural only. Once Old English gave way to Middle English, though, it became the custom to refer to a person of higher social standing than oneself as “you.” (Even today many languages have different ways of speaking depending on who is speaking to whom.) Soon “you” became the standard word to use with a social equal too. Eventually almost everywhere in the English-speaking world “you” became the polite way to address any other person.

Ever since the plural word “you” became singular as well, we’ve had no one word that could distinguish “you” the individual from “you” meaning a group. And what about “you” meaning a couple? Saying “all of you” to two people isn’t correct. Old English had a one-word solution to this problem: “yit” as the subject of a sentence, or “inc” as the object. If you wanted to tell a couple that you’d enjoyed your conversation with them, in Old English you would have said “It was nice talking with inc.” Didst thou know that? I’ll bet not!

Loren Anderson, of Canton, Mich., writes: “People say ‘These are the reasons why I did that.’ Isn’t it better not to include ‘why’?”

Yes, that sentence would be better without “why” -- and David Letterman thinks so too. At least, when his Top Ten List consists of “reasons,” the word is never followed by “why” -- as in a list from last month titled “Top Ten Reasons I Didn’t Win ‘Survivor’ presented by Shii Ann Huang.”

Sometimes “reason” or “reasons” is the word to skip. For instance, think of the Elvis Presley song “Don’t Ask Me Why.” You’ll have to admit, that title is catchier than “Don’t Ask Me the Reasons.” But occasionally either word alone seems too abrupt. For instance, here’s a sentence that appeared in The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune last month: “There are reasons why this has not been tried more often.” If we were going to change “reasons why,” we’d probably be tempted to change it to “reasons that.” But why go to the trouble? Here “the reasons why” is no more wasteful of words than “the time when” or “the place where.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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