How and When to Use Y’all
The word y’all is associated with the South, and it is often used improperly by non-Southerners. It means “you all.” Thus, currently, the rule is that one doesn't say y’all to one person. I say “currently” because language evolves—if enough speakers begin to say y’all to one person, the rule could change.
What Difference Does This Make? We’re Lawyers!
Y’all is informal, so its use it in court might seem strange. You’re unlikely to say y’all even to a three-judge panel. I’m assuming you know better. Don’t even think about it. Further, I’m assuming you know that if you put it in a pleading, your computer will melt, and if you print a hard copy, it will spontaneously combust.
However, it’s important to understand the concept of register. If you’ve tried a case to a jury, get the transcript and compare how you speak to the court versus how you speak to a witness or to the jury during voir dire. If you normally use y’all in ordinary conversation, you might see that you speak quite formally to the court (at least if you don’t find yourself often being held in contempt) and much more informally to the jury or to a witness. You might say y’all in voir dire. Depending on the case, the jury, and you, you might even say it during closing argument, and it’s very likely you’ll say it in mediation.
As an aside, if you normally sound like the Queen of England or Benedict Cumberbatch, don’t say y’all ever, because then it’s an affectation. You’ll lose credibility with the jury, and the ones who do say y’all will wonder if you’re mocking them. In other words, it will backfire. But if y’all is part of your natural vocabulary, you might find yourself saying it in court sometimes, perhaps to the jury during voir dire. If you’re a good enough litigator, you’ll know when you should speak formally during the whole case and when you can say y'all to the jury. Of course, if you’re using y’all, then the rest of your speech would be similarly less formal.
Why Would You Ever Lapse into Less Formal Speech?
Because sometimes it might be effective. It might humanize you—and your client—to the jury. If you’re looking for emotional appeal, sometimes less formal speech is more persuasive. Under the wrong circumstances, it might be the equivalent of showing up to the courthouse in a ratty sweatshirt and no pants. Again, you’ll have to rely on your instincts as a litigator.
Pay attention to register when you’re speaking. Sometimes, slipping into less formal speech can be useful, but when you do, do it right.
- Most of the time, use formal speech in litigation
- Sometimes—as when you’re speaking to the jury or in mediation—you might not have to use formal speech
- Sometimes it may even be better to use informal speech
- This depends on the case, the parties, the court, and the rules of formality in your location
- When to use informal speech is a matter of instinct
For a fun story imagining how Southerners started using “y’all,” check out this Writing Tip.
Formal v. Informal: Find the Right Balance
If you tend toward informality and you have trouble recognizing when casual language would be inappropriate, WordRake can help. It will help you convert overly informal language to professional language and check for other weaknesses in your writing. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. Try WordRake for free for 7 days.