"you guys" revisited: further thoughts on the language police

If you know, you know.
In October 2020, I wrote a post about the expression you guys, and whether or not using guys as a gender-neutral term excludes transgender people:  "you guys": change language, do no harm, but can we please leave space for learning and growing?

In that post, I concluded that, although I didn't understand or agree with this language prohibition, being inclusive and sensitive to other people was more important than whether or not I agreed with the view. 

Now, more than two years later, I have a different take. I've returned to my first reaction: this is too much. This is not necessary. There is no need for this.

However, in some contexts, I continue to subsitute folks (which I hate) for guys. But not because I believe it's the right thing to do.

I see no uptake

In the time since I wrote that post, I've been listening carefully to language on series and movies I watch, in public settings, on social media -- everywhere that I can. I have observed that an overwhelming majority of people use you guys as gender-neutral and inclusive. 

In fact, everyone I've heard uses you guys this way -- except my work colleagues, who purposely do not use the word. This "everyone" most definitely includes LGBTQ+ people. People of all colours and from all communities use you guys to refer to groups of people of mixed genders.

The claim that you guys refers only to men just doesn't track. Of course the words guy or guys does refer to men in some contexts. But our understanding of language is always context dependent. We understand that we bake with flour and give a flower, even though to our ears, the words are identical. We know that we can book an appointment, read a book, or cook the books. That I can chair a meeting and sit on a chair. I could give hundreds of examples. We use identical and identical-sounding words with different meanings all the time. 

People also claim that you guys excludes transgender people, but I see no appreciable uptake of this concept, including from trans people that I know. Since you guys is gender neutral, there's no reason to assume it excludes people who are gender-queer, nonbinary, or expressing any manner of gender identity. Neutral is neutral. 

Some of my peers have said that they find the word age-inappropriate, for example, a server in a restaurant calling two older women you guys. I don't share this view, and I don't know why we would want more people to make judgements based on age. There's enough ageism in this world without asking for more. But the people who shared this preference with me do not hear you guys as sexist -- and most importantly, they are not asking others not to use the expression.

But here's the catch

However, in a work setting, I don't use you guys -- because it would be considered old and outdated language. Using you guys would signal that I am either ignorant, stubborn, or worse, transphobic. So I've taught myself not to use you guys. All this means is that I've capitulated to the language police. I haven't changed my view. I've merely conformed. 

I have found articles dating as far back as 2015 that argue for dropping you guys because it is sexist or excluding. These stories usually quote a transgender person saying they feel the expression excludes them. Since this idea hasn't gotten any appreciable uptake in eight years, I'm wondering how the writer got that quote -- how many people they went through before they found someone to confirm their view.

Someone somewhere is always offended by something. But who speaks for others? Whose point of view represents a population or a community? 

And is there no limit on the policing of language? Must we all follow every new rule with equal fervor, as if every language choice carries the same import? As if you guys is the N-word? Because here's the thing. If there is no limit, there is only blind adherence. There is no critical thinking. There is just this: a self-appointed arbiter of our language speaks, and everyone must follow. 

If there is no limit, there is only blind loyalty

In the past few months, I've had some in-depth conversations with two very close friends. We are all the same age (within two years), are all progressive, and all believe strongly in inclusion. We are all white, two of us are Jewish, and we are not all heterosexual. We have all, at times, been on the receiving end of sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and/or ageism. And we all recognize our privilege in all its forms.

We also recognize the importance of inclusive language, and of using the term for a group or a peoples that does not cause offense. We are not people who insist on using outdated and offensive terms. We are people who understand the importance of language.

All three of us are at times frustrated or horrified by the use of language policing as a weapon, and have the persistent sense that language policing can go too far. 

I'm a big fan of linguist John McWhorter and his views on language. I've enjoyed several of his books (reviews here and here), and read his New York Times column sporadically (the way I read all columnists that I like). I don't agree with all of McWhorter's politics, and that shouldn't contradict or undermine anything I'm writing here. Also, McWhorter is Black.

I always appreciate McWhorter's nuanced view. Here's an example: 'BIPOC' Is Jargon. That's OK, and Normal People Don't Have to Say It. He's not saying the expression BIPOC is silly, nor is he saying we shouldn't use it, if it fits within our context. He explains why the word also can be seen as problematic, and believes that using it should not be a requirement. He cites Latinx as a similar expression.

Punishments are supposed to fit crimes

Last year, McWhorter wrote an excellent column about the over-reaction of the language police: One Graceless Tweet Does Not Warrant Cancellation. He wrote about a (formerly distinguished) professor of psychiatry who tweeted something he meant as a compliment but in fact was a racist remark. The professor apologized without reservation, and demonstrated that he learned from the experience. Even so, his livelihood was destroyed and his career was ruined.

McWhorter writes:

But must Lieberman's career be destroyed because of a tweet that pretty clearly reflects an ignorance of that history but that was, also, clearly well intended? We're often told in such cases that what matters is not the intent of the perpetrator but the impact on the recipient of the message. But impact has degrees, and we have to consider whether some are claiming vaster impact in certain cases than plausibility would suggest. Because we've reached the point that there's no room left to respond to Lieberman with nuance and prudence. To say: "We know you meant it as a compliment, but you should know that there are offensive connotations to using that word in reference to Black women, and an apology is owed." And then — crucially — to accept a sincere and full-throated apology when it is given, as it was here.

For someone to instead, almost instantly, be suspended from one job, dismissed from another and resign from a third because of such a thing is a disproportion of punishment to crime. It is extreme and unnecessary and ultimately lacks reason. There's something amiss if we're now at the point that someone's career is to be permanently tarnished and perhaps ended based on a passing error, which started as a misguided attempt at praise and which has been profusely apologized for. We must assess what the actual purpose of this kind of language policing is. We must ask: What, in terms of combating racism, is accomplished? Will it result in better and more available psychiatric care — or medical care in general — for Black people? Will it make Columbia University, where I am a faculty member, a more open-minded place?

The question that I always get back to is: what purpose does this serve? Are we trying to educate? Are we trying to not cause offense? Or are we just trying to win? To assert power. To punish.

If the goal is education, I suggest that punitive education is never effective. Children who are punished for using "bad" language learn not to use it front of parents and teachers.

If we are seeking to punish, the punishment should fit the crime. 

Are we seeking redress for past crimes, perpetrated by a group to which this person belongs? Meaning: this professor is a white man, and white men have historically harmed Black women, so this white man must be severely punished for this ill-advised tweet? 

This is called scapegoating, and it is always wrong.

Too much policing tends to backfire

For many of us, there is cultural pressure to buy whatever the language police are selling. I will never forget the disgusted expressions directed at me when I mistakenly said "Bradley Manning," very shortly after the war resister changed their name to Chelsea. I had been saying "Bradley Manning" for years -- and although I knew Manning had come out as trans, my speech patterns hadn't fully caught up. 

When people are fired based on one remark, even after they have sincerely and profusely apologized, the right-wingers -- who howl about being cancelled (while broadcasting to an audience of millions), who claim to be persecuted (while stripping rights from those who disagree with them), who persecute a minority people simply for living their lives -- are strengthened. The unyielding and indiscriminate use of language policing only stregthens their cause.

It pains me when progressives mirror the right-wing. When we figurately kill everyone who doesn't speak the way we believe they should, we are behaving like the ignorant bigots do. It doesn't matter how pure our motives are.


Amy said...

Having used "you guys" all my life to mean more than one person regardless of gender, I guess I never saw it as sexist or transphobic or otherwise offensive since to me "guy" meant a person, not a male person. Since reading your earlier column, I've been more aware of how some might find offensive because they hear "guy" as male, not as any person. So I do think about who I am saying it to, but I have never had anyone indicate that they (he or she or they) were offended. It just means "people" to most people. Like folks. :) At least in the Northeast US.

laura k said...

Thanks for sharing, Amy. :)

Marie Snyder said...

This is a great post! I also use "guys" as a gender neutral noun, and my oldest, who is trans, has yet to comment on it. I wasn't even aware it's a faux pas. I also use "dude" in the same way, but when addressing just one person of any gender. But to your point that "folks" hasn't taken over in our language, it's possible two years isn't enough time to make that shift. We might see nothing change, then everything all at once. I'll likely keep saying "guys" until someone in my circles asks me not to. I also lean towards making simple changes in my language if it makes people in the room more comfortable. And, while I agree it's just blind loyalty - or blind thoughtfulness or considerateness - I think sometimes that's exactly what it takes to make change. Stop saying the offensive words in x place (school/work) because we say so, and then they become words people just don't say anymore.

I had a few teachers back in the early 80s who openly used racial slurs, and that just doesn't happen now, and obviously that's a good thing! I don't understand the offensiveness of "guys," but I also don't understand the offensiveness of other terms but follow along with what's generally most accepted. Like the R-word, which was a medical term I learned in uni. It absorbed the hatefulness and pejorative comments directed to the group until the term itself was seen as offensive. So we shifted descriptive terms, and continue to do that whenever they absorb too much hate, instead of reclaiming them. As someone with ASD, I'm "Level 1" now instead of "high-functioning," and I guess that sounds better, but only until people start getting offended that their child is considered "Level 3" and we start to use animal names to identify levels of ability like we do in swimming lessons so children don't acknowledge who's better or worse.

But then the second part of the post - absolutely! It's like when Erika Christakis wrote an open letter suggesting it's okay if kids want to dress up like Mulan for Hallowe'en and was pushed out of her position at Yale for it. We're playing into the hands of the capitalist elites when we fight among ourselves over trivial matters instead of joining together to fight the people provoking things like the derailment in Ohio and the people unable to find housing, etc. (and now I might be destroyed for calling costumes trivial!).

laura k said...

Marie Snyder, I don't know if I've ever told you, but I LOVE your comments. You are always so thoughtful, I always learn something, and I always know you've read the whole post. Many thanks.

Marie Snyder said...


impudent strumpet said...

It's interesting that you're not seeing uptake, because I was just thinking the other day that I see people deliberately circumlocuting "you guys" more and more frequently.

It would be interesting to know (but probably unknowable) if we're actually seeing different patterns, or if there are just different patterns to what we're noticing.

I know I do tend to notice circumlocutions more than the average person, especially when it's something that I'm also looking for strategies on how to circumlocute. But I know that you'd also be able to recognize where editorial decisions are being made.

I can't say I'd notice when people are using "you guys" because it feels completely neutral and benign to me. (I still think someone needs to do a linguistics study to see if it's geographical and/or demographic.)

But it's that very sense that it's benign that leads me to make a specific effort not to use it. When I was younger, there were some people (generally older, privileged men) who insisted most vociferously that a generic "he" was in fact neutral and benign and not gendered at all, in a way that reflects how I intuitively feel that "you guys" is neutral and benign and not gendered at all. I find the idea of being like those people repulsive, so I try to circumlocute "you guys".

impudent strumpet said...

'BIPOC' Is Jargon. That's OK, and Normal People Don't Have to Say It.

What is it that he thinks Normal People are saying instead?

I mean that genuinely. I was under the impression that BIPOC was the current term and was linguistically unmarked, so if it isn't and there's something else that's linguistically unmarked, I'd like to know what it is so I can make informed decisions about the words I put in other people's mouths.

laura k said...

You guys. I am mostly noticing it in series I'm watching, and mostly noticing how ubiquitous and gender-neutral and orientation-neutral it is. In person, I see the split between my colleagues who are purposely not saying it, and anyone else I hear.

I also HATED the supposedly generic he. I used to write s/he. And I was so happy in that brief moment when the generic changed to she/her. I have trouble thinking that you guys is like that. But you're the first person to mention this angle, and I will definitely keep thinking.

BIPOC. I don't know. I hate his use of the word normal there. To me it's obvious he's trying to be provocative. There's no reason to imply that we who use BIPOC are not normal. Perhaps he thinks so-called normal people don't need to describe this?

However, I do like his analysis of why BIPOC is a weird word. I still use People of Colour -- which includes Black and Indigenous -- for all the reasons he says.

johngoldfine said...

I got pushback from female students sometime in the late 80s the first time I started class, "Okay, guys, showtime!"

But by the 90s, not so much. By then for my students it was either gender-neutral, gender-inclusive, or simply not worth hassling the old dub about.

I do feel funny when I call all my dogs 'boys,' as in "C'mon, boys, time to come in the house. House, boys!" 'Dogs' works for me too, but 'boys' comes to tongue just as easily--and none of the female dogs ever pushes back or considers me an old dub. ('Dog,' of course, technically only applies to the males so itself can be gender-exclusive!)

I think that some of the word-policing intends to create shibboleths that make it easy to distinguish in and out groups, the virtuous from the vicious. And as you say, that very quickly turns into an ugly illiberalism mirroring the right wing.

laura k said...

Thanks, John. I love this. We used to always call our dogs "girls," as in, "Bye girls, be good!" as we were leaving the house or "Girls?" for group recall. Then we adopted Diego, our first male dog, and we started calling them pups or puppies.

We're pretty sure Diego was gay, but we don't know if he had any gender identity issues. :)

I think that some of the word-policing intends to create shibboleths that make it easy to distinguish in and out groups,

So this is interesting! Do the think the intention is conscious, that the language is not really the issue? Or is the group identification more like a happy secondary result?

johngoldfine said...

"Do the think the intention is conscious, that the language is not really the issue?"

I can't pretend to offer even the hope of an objective answer, Laura. I loathe the language coppers I know so much that I have to assume they are petty, sanctimonious, depraved fools, who hate language and wish to put it everywhere in chains.

I don't think language is the issue for them as much as control and dominance: people have to say what they want them to say the way they want people to say it! Orwell feared the use of language to limit and distort thinking and to control people; the language cops certainly believe in the power of words, but, as I say, hope to put language in chains, lest thoughtcrime occur.

Fuck that and fuck those guys!

laura k said...

Yeah, it's not a fair question, but I love your take on it. Cross-reference my (lifelong) claim that the anti-abortion zealots are only interested in controlling and punishing women. Controlling access to contraception and abortion is a powerful way to control women's bodies and choices (or to try to).

Looking at the language police this way explains why transgressions are met with such disproportionate punishments. Through this lens, the picture is very clear.

impudent strumpet said...

'Dog,' of course, technically only applies to the males so itself can be gender-exclusive!

This is a new concept to me! Within this paradigm, is there an inclusive way to refer to all dogs of all genders?

laura k said...

This is a new concept to me! Within this paradigm, is there an inclusive way to refer to all dogs of all genders?

Dogs of all genders are referred to as dogs. :)