If you want to know where in the United States people call home, just wait long enough to hear them speak informally to a group of people. If you hear “y’all,” they may hail from the Deep South, like me. If you hear “yous guys,” New Jersey would be a smarter guess. In some parts of Appalachia, or Pittsburgh, you might even hear “you’uns.”
These regional differences—as Josh Katz explains in Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: A Visual Guide—aren’t just fascinating. They’re real-life solutions to a particular ambiguity in the English language, an ambiguity that can hinder our reading of Scripture in English.
The English pronoun “you” functions as both the second-person singular and plural. A husband says “I love you” to his wife, and a rock star shouts “Are you ready?” to a stadium full of fans. We used to have the exclusively singular “thou,” but in modern English, “you” does everything.
The Y’all of Greek
Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, has no such ambiguity. συ [su] is singular and ὑμεις [hymeis] is plural. As this Southern boy tells his Greek students, “συ [su] means you and ὑμεις [hymeis] means y’all.”
As this Southern boy tells his Greek students, “συ [su] means you and ὑμεις [hymeis] means y’all.”
Even in the absence of a “you” or “y’all,” the spelling of a verb indicates whether the author is addressing a single person or a group of people. English simply uses “you” for both, opening the New Testament reader to possible misunderstanding.
Does Paul exhort the Philippians: “He who began a good work in you [singular] will be faithful to complete it,” or “He who began a good work in you guys will be faithful to complete it”? You can see the different nuance of each.
Let’s look at how the difference between a singular and plural can affect our understanding of some well-known passages. For the sake of ease, I’ll stick with the somewhat neutral “you guys” for the plural.
How ‘You’ Makes a Difference
Consider Paul’s teaching about the Holy Spirit: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). What does this mean? I have heard this text used to defend the sanctity of human life, highlight the unique value of each follower of Jesus, or even as a general encouragement for the lonely.
There are many passages in the New Testament that speak to these truths, but something else entirely is in view here. A look at the context, and the fact that both uses of “you” in this sentence are plural, will make this clear.
The sentence should read, “Do you not know that you guys are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you guys?”
It sounds clunky, I know, but do you see the difference in meaning? Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that they collectively make up the temple where the Holy Spirit dwells.
Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that they collectively make up the temple where the Holy Spirit dwells.
In this section of the letter, Paul is addressing divisions that have shaken the Corinthian church. His point: your divisions misrepresent and oppose the oneness of God’s Spirit. You guys are one temple, so start acting like it!
Think of the difference in nuance when we read the Great Commission as “behold I am with you guys always, even to the end of the age.” Of course, we believe the Lord through his Spirit is present with each one of us, but in the context of the mission of God’s people to the ends of the earth, doesn’t the plural form make more sense?
God has sent us out to bear his name and make disciples, and he is with us as we go. Looking now to the Gospel of John, consider how Jesus’s promise, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you guys into all truth,” has a different feel to it.
Again, this is not to say that God does not guide us individually, but as Jesus is preparing his followers to live and work together, the plural form makes more sense.
Rightly Dividing, You Guys
What is at stake here? It isn’t that rightly reading “you” as “you guys” where the Greek demands it completely changes the meaning of tons of New Testament passages (though it certainly does for some). It’s that in our already individualistic Western culture, reading “you” instead of “you guys” can reinforce our me-first worldview rather than challenge it.
Reading ‘you’ instead of ‘you guys’ can reinforce our me-first worldview rather than challenge it.
What do we do, then? How can we read the New Testament well without learning Greek? The best safeguard against such misreading is to pay close attention to the literary context.
In the texts I have discussed, you can see from the flow of the author’s argument that the plural form makes more sense, even without consulting the original language. The danger comes when we rip these texts from their contexts and expect them to stand on their own.
Could there be a way of marking plural forms of you in English translations more than just in the footnotes? Perhaps with italics? These are difficult questions for those who do the challenging work of Bible translation. In any case, good commentaries and study Bibles can give us confidence as we read our very reliable English translations.