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‘Guys’ is not gender-neutral—let’s stop using it like it is

A gender bias expert says that we can all help the English language evolve towards inclusivity by eliminating the usage of “guys” when referring to people who are not male gender.

‘Guys’ is not gender-neutral—let’s stop using it like it is
[Photo: Ahmed Zayan/Unsplash]
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Growing up, it was common in my region of the United States to use the word “guys” with the second person plural, as in: “How are you guys?” I didn’t think twice about using it until I learned the history of the word “guy” and considered what it meant when used for groups that included women and nonbinary people.

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History of second-person pronouns

Prior to the 18th century, the English language had distinct pronouns for the second person singular and plural:

  • Singular: thou, thee, thine
  • Plural: you, ye, your

You/ye/your was also used as a form of respect when addressing one person, which eventually led to thou/thee/thine being perceived as disrespectful and falling out of use. With this loss of the second person singular, modern English has lacked a pronoun to distinguish between “you” that refers to an individual person and “you” that refers to multiple people.

Hence, countries and regions have come up with alternatives:

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That brings us to “you guys” which is used in many regions of the United States and other English-speaking countries. While lots of people feel that “guys” is gender-neutral, many others don’t, for good reason when considering its history.

History of “guy”

The origin of “guy” is traced to Guy Fawkes who became infamous when he was arrested for trying to assassinate King James I in 1605. English parliament established November 5 as Guy Fawkes Day to commemorate the failed assassination plot. The word “guy” came to mean an effigy of Fawkes with a grotesque mask which was burned on that celebration day. In England, “guy” came to be used as a pejorative for a man (“He’s a bad guy”).

When the term later spread to United States slang, the negative connotations were largely lost, perhaps due to lack of context, and guy came to mean “man” or “fellow” in the singular and “person” in the plural. This created the inclusivity problem. Since a singular “guy” is a person of the male gender, those who are not of the male gender can feel excluded when referred to as “guys” in the plural. This is similar to the exclusion women and nonbinary people may feel when they are referred to with other masculine words, such as “All men are created equal.”

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I recently posted a tweet with suggestions for gender-neutral alternatives to “you guys” and solicited more options. Some people responded that they view “you guys” as “gender-neutral” and that “there are bigger things to get worked up over.” Others expressed that they too have been bothered by the term “guys” for women and mixed-gender groups and have been trying to stop using it. As Claire Mulligan-Foster stated, “Most people say they mean everyone but the issue is that not everyone hears it that way.” Dr. Ronda Alexander pointed out, “It hurts most when it’s an organization/group composed entirely of women.” And as Kymberly Louise noted that “you guys” can be problematic even when the speaker perceives the group to be all-male: “I don’t want to accidentally misgender someone even from my perspective [that] they appear to identify as male.”

Replacing “guys” with gender-neutral alternatives grants respect to the people being addressed, regardless of whether you view “guys” as gender-neutral or gendered. Would you greet a mixed-gender or all-male group with “How are you gals?” Probably not unless to make a point, as Gordon Dosher stated, “I did use ‘gals’ one time in a mixed group to point out the ridiculousness of saying ‘guys.'”

As one study found, subtle gender-exclusive linguistic cues can lead women to feel ostracized and to self-select out of professional environments. In the study, women responded with a lower sense of belonging and less motivation during mock interviews that used gender-exclusive language (he) as compared to interviews that used gender-inclusive (he or she) or gender-neutral (one) language. Thus, dropping “guys” and other gender-exclusive language can help to create organizational cultures in which everyone feels a sense of belonging.

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There are several strategies to get over the “guys” habit.

Become aware of gender-inclusive alternatives

Not every alternative fits every context, but generally one or more of these options will work.

Substitute “you guys” with:

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  • you all
  • you two
  • you both
  • you folks
  • you
  • y’all / all y’all / yous / youse / you’uns / yinz / ye / you lot (depending on your region)

For other usages such as “hey / hi / hello guys,” substitute “guys” with:

  • all
  • everyone / everybody
  • people
  • folks
  • team
  • colleagues
  • comrades
  • squad
  • friends
  • pals
  • peeps
  • party people
  • lovely people
  • beautiful humans
  • Or just say “hey,” “hi,” or “hello” without attaching any other word

Responsible leadership

Those in authority (executives and managers) should set the example of inclusive language by not using ‘guys’ for women and mixed-gender groups. Leaders can also communicate guidelines for expected use of inclusive language in their organizations. Professors and teachers can challenge their students to not use “guys,” as Dr. Nancy Lough has done. Inclusivity is best addressed from the top down, by leaders who set expectations and norms.

Model and self-correct

Set a goal to stop using “guys” to refer to women and mixed-gender groups. However, be aware that ‘guys’ can be so ingrained in our speech habits that it is almost inevitable to slip up. It happened to me last year (pre-pandemic) when I passed a group of female colleagues in the hallway. I greeted them, “How are you guys doing?” As I kept walking, I internally chastised myself. If you use ‘guys’ unintentionally, give yourself grace for the mistake and correct it if the situation allows: “I meant to say, ‘How are you all doing?'”

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Ask for correction

Tell others that you are quitting the “guys” habit and give them permission to call you out if you use it inappropriately. One teacher asked her fourth grade class to do this and found that the “kids got me together SO quick,” as she stated.

Call it out

If you hear others repeatedly using “guys” to refer to women or mixed-gender groups, call it out in private with a rationale. This is especially important in the workplace where inclusive language can help women and nonbinary people feel welcome. For example, you may explain, “I know that many people use ‘you guys’ to refer to a group, but some people don’t think of themselves as a ‘guy.'”

Solicit help from colleagues

If you’re part of a group being referred to as “guys,” it can be tricky to call out. If you feel comfortable, speak privately to the individual, explaining that while you know it wasn’t their intention, when you hear “guys,” you feel excluded. Also, consider finding a like-minded colleague who can help by speaking to individuals on your behalf, and vice versa.

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As a response to my Twitter post, one person noted, “Language changes with time.” That is correct, and we can all help the English language evolve towards inclusivity by eliminating the usage of ‘guys’ when referring to people who are not male gender.


Amy Diehl, PhD is chief information officer at Wilson College and an expert on gender bias in the workplace. Find her on Twitter @amydiehl.