An Unexpected Question About “You”

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has been “having a discussion with a friend” about which of the following is “the right grammar”

You was..or You were…

The fact that this question can be the subject of discussion in an age of free public education suggests either that basic standard grammar is not being taught effectively in the schools, or that pronouns are going to continue to go their own way as they have always done.

Add the bombardment of ungrammatical popular culture to the current of normal linguistic change, and grammatical “certainties” as apparently fundamental as you were are called into question.

Take, for example, these lyrics from a song sung by Dean Martin and Peggy Lee:

(PL) If you were to ask me who the sweetest one I knew was
I’d say you was
(DM) If you were to ask me who my favorite point of view was
I’d say you was

Any construction, heard often enough, is going to begin to sound “right” to the speakers who hear it.

In the case of you, the situation is muddied by the fact that the pronoun you is used with either a singular or a plural antecedent.

You began as a plural pronoun. Its singular counterpart was thou. For social and historical reasons the form thou dropped out of English with the result that plural you now does the work of singular thou. It’s not illogical to want to put a singular verb with a subject that stands for one person. In the case of you, however, it’s ungrammatical in standard English.

To answer the reader’s question:
You were is the correct standard form.

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17 Responses to “An Unexpected Question About “You””

  • Radu

    So, the question is what are those social and historic reasons to drop the variant thou?

  • Chris M

    One think you have to remember is that songwriters take hold of the “literary licence” and utilize it to make their songs more catchy and also to rhyme sometimes. It shouldn’t be looked upon as the grammar rule.

  • Nuscha

    *one thing, that is, though 😉

    I have read “one think” instead of “one thing” several times in comments on this site and wonder about the reason. It sounds even differently when pronounced …

  • nutmeag

    I agree with Chris M on the literary license that song writers tend to take to make a song more catchy, but I do believe that some song writers just don’t understand proper grammar. Quite a few of the current pop songs tend to change pronouns like a debutante changes clothes. A song seems to refer to only one person, but will use 3 different pronouns–from she to them to me–to refer to that person. Really, how difficult is it to use one pronoun throughout an entire song?!?

  • Mowahid

    “Literary license” ..???

  • nutmeag

    Poetic license is probably the correct term, hahaha.

  • Maeve

    I was listening to some Frank Sinatra songs this morning and found myself admiring his impeccable grammar.

  • MS

    If you recall Beyonce’s “Irreplacable”, she sings: “Cause you was untrue”.

    Would it have been problematic to sing “Cause you were untrue”. I think not.

  • norina

    Yikes! You “was” kidding, right?

  • Cassie Tuttle

    This is certainly an “unexpected question.” For some of us, it’s hard to believe that there could even be a debate over which verb form to use.

    Yes, it’s a sad commentary on what’s going on (or rather, what’s not going on) in our schools today.

    And yes, it is a commentary on today’s pop culture and the influence it has on language.

    So, just where do we draw the line? Now that I’m no longer a “prescriptivist,” what is acceptable? When can I start pulling out my hair again?!

  • scriveyn

    From wikipedia (correct, I hope):

    A few verbs have irregular thou forms:
    to be: thou art (or thou beest), thou wast (or thou wert; originally thou were)

  • Maeve

    Radu,
    You’ll find the answer to your question here:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/o-second-person-singular-where-art-thou/

  • Sheri

    I’m in a grammar course now at my college. I will never disrespect the English language again. Grammar rules are incredibly insane, yet I love it all.

    Knowing the history of the syntactic theories is part of the fun.

    Thank you for helping me realize I am not the only Grammar Police out there 🙂

  • Grace S.

    Having read the post including references to King James English linked above, I have a related question:

    In church, our liturgy has traditionally used a phrase such as “Thou Who sittest at the right hand of God the Father” to refer to Jesus, singular. As we have changed over from using the King James Bible translation, we have also gradually changed from use of “thee” and “thou” and the “est” forms of the verbs in the liturgy. I believe, then, that we should be singing “You Who sit at . . .” but those in charge have written “You Who sits at . . .” It disturbs me (only slightly–I know the intended meaning regardless of the word used) every time I sing it. Am I correct or just being picky?

  • mand

    I’m going to upset all these defenders of correct grammar. In many dialects, including BEV (Black English Vernacular – no idea if i’m out of date with that name for it), the form you was is correct.

    In fact it seems also to be correct in my sons’ regional (Wiltshire, UK), social (not very posh) and generational (born between 1990 and 2000) dialects. Another usage they bring home is writ as the past, both perfect and participle, of write. I gave up correcting that one, and now quite like it.

    As for thing/think, Nuscha, the latter is a common mispronunciation in the UK; i don’t know about the USA. This is one i can’t get to like! I simply hate hearing ‘somethink’. Then from the pronunciation, the spelling would easily follow. I suppose it’s the same sound shift as the audible g in words like singing, which is not natural to me but normal in part of the northern UK. North-western, i think.

  • Lesley

    Mand, I hear the mispronunciation as ‘somefink’.

  • xray

    @Lesley. It’s like the norf London variant.

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