The Possessive Your Guys’ Is American English at Its Rough-Spun Best

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

What’s beautiful about language is that people will modify it to suit their needs, especially when the language is flimsy around a certain use case. In contemporary English, the second-person plural sticks out awkwardly: How do you address a group of people? You guys, y’all, youse? It gets even flimsier in the possessive: How do you ask a group of people about something of theirs, like their bathroom, their phone?

Well, as Ben Yagoda observes at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog, you do what Americans do best: innovate. Around the turn of this century, a new usage popped into the vernacular: Your guys’. Like a caller ringing the spectacular “Car Talk” radio show: “I wanted to get your guys’ opinion.” Or in the millennial tour de force, Napoleon Dynamite: “Hey, can I use your guys’s phone for a sec?” Or what Yagoda has as the earliest entry in Google Books, from a 2002 novel called Impeachment: “Well, it is, but that is your guys’s problem.”

In this case, your guys’ came about to deal with the weakness of the standard possessive form, you guys’, which sucks because it sounds just like the nonpossessive you guys when you say it. “Of course, one could differentiate it by treating guys as if it were a nonplural ending in s, adding an extra syllable, and saying ‘you guises,’ the way one would say ‘Jesusez’ (for ‘Jesus’s’) or ‘the Jonezez’ (for ‘the Jones’s’),” Yagoda writes. “But (in my admittedly small sample) I’ve never heard it pronounced this way, probably because it sounds childlike, if not childish.”

So one usage stands alone: your guys’, which sounds like “your guise” when you say it. It follows a beautiful, semi-syntactical logic: your guys’s sounds ridiculous, so don’t use that, and by moving you to your, all of sudden you’re signaling that you’re using the possessive, which makes the whole thing clear.

It’s a useful case study for a long-running feud in linguistics, between descriptivists and prescriptivists. (The late David Foster Wallace magnificently dramatized it in a 2001 essay for Harper’s.) Descriptivists think that a language evolves with its use and that authority lies with the speakers. (As in, they support your using “literally” as an emphasizer.) A prescriptivist would say that the language should, like math, closely adhere to a standard set of rules set out by some agreed-upon authority. Big Grammar, if you would. Your guys’ shows that no matter how much prescriptivists might wring their hands at the death of the mother tongue, English — and every other living language — is just going to keep evolving. It’s a vote for descriptivism. Power to the people, you guys.

Your Guys’ Is American English at Its Rough-Spun Best