Hey You Guys

Say you have a group of female friends who you enjoy spending time with. You might say in reference to them:

  1. I love those guys.

Strictly speaking, the word “guy” refers to a man, but in this context (1) sounds perfectly grammatical to me.  However, if one of these women was your particular favorite you could not say:

  1. *I love that guy.

Sentence (2) is ungrammatical because of the gender mismatch. This plurality exception is specific to the word guy. You would not say, in reference to this same group of female friends, “I’m meeting the men after work for appletinis.” Nor would you say about an all-male party, “This weekend I’m going deer hunting with the girls.”

There’s nothing unusual about gender neutralization in plurals. In English they can refer to a group of males and females. Similarly, in a language with grammatical gender like French, the pronoun les can refer to mixed groups of inanimate masculine and feminine nouns. This makes sense–if you don’t care about the co-ed status of a group, it’s economical to just repurpose an existing pronoun. To my knowledge, however, guy is the only non-function word in any language that exhibits this behavior.

So what’s special about guy? My hypothesis is that it fills a particular social niche. For the past half century, the English language has been changing its grammatical gender norms in response to changes in non-grammatical, flesh-and-blood gender norms. So out with mankind and chairman while in informal speech they gets repurposed as a singular pronoun as in “Every student knows when they have mastered the lesson.” Part of this quest for gender equity is to reconfigure things so that female-specific forms of address don’t automatically have a connotation of lower status, e.g. not referring to grown women as “girls”. However, in certain informal contexts you need a bit of lowered status to indicate familiarity. Diminutives must in some sense be diminished. When talking about males, guy fits the bill perfectly. Pretty much the only difference between man and guy is that the latter is less formal. On the other hand, all the specifically female informal nouns–girl, chick etc.–carry sexist baggage. Of course there will be contexts in which they are appropriate, but if you want something informal but not too informal you’re out of luck. There is the word gal which is basically the female equivalent of guy–informal without being condescending–but unfortunately it also sounds hopelessly old fashioned. (“Say–after we buy these war bonds let’s meet the gals down at the automat for a cup of joe.”) With that avenue cut off, we take a cue from the function word side of the aisle and neutralize the gender of guys.

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3 Responses to Hey You Guys

  1. Renee says:

    Yeah, and saying “Hey Ladies” feels a little too old-fashioned (except when the Beastie Boyz do it) or sexist or something.

    • W.P. McNeill says:

      Years ago I read an anecdote by the Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov about a run-in he had with an American immigration official. The woman was giving him a hard time, and he decided the way to handle the situation was to be extra polite. He wasn’t sure what the appropriate term of address for a woman was, but figured his best bet was to come up with the English version of French madame. So then, mustering all the deference he could manage, Aksyonov turned to the official and said, “Listen, Lady…”

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    A contrary opinion. Makes me want to clarify that I’m claiming that the gender of guys is neutralized syntactically. Semantically it’s obviously all still tied up with notions of maleness. And even syntax can still be unfair. The fact that it’s inevitably the male pronoun that gets repurposed to refer to all humans I can’t attribute to anything but sexism.

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