An Unexpected Question About “You”
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.
Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips and get a free eBook!
- Our weekly newsletter is free (one email per week, on Tuesdays)
- You will improve your English, guaranteed.
- Get our "100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid" eBook free.