Headlander, the newest game from Double Fine and Adult Swim Games, is a charming mix of ’70s sci-fi themes, Metroid-style gameplay, and the kind of weirdness that has always characterized games from both companies. It also has a character named Earl who completely kills any suspension of disbelief in the very first seconds of the game, which you can watch above. Here’s his dialogue:
And I’m through. Y’all should be hearing my on your helmet radio now. I know y’all got a lot of questions, but there ain’t no point in trying to talk, because you ain’t got no lungs. Y’all just come out of stasis, so you don’t likely remember much. This is gonna be a hard pill to swallow, but—hell’s bells! Shepherds again! Y’all gonna need yourself a body. Welcome to the future! Ain’t much sure why, but Methuselah wants a hold of you. We gotta get y’all off this ship.
For a large proportion of Headlander’s audience—and Double Fine’s entire staff, apparently—there’s nothing about that dialogue that sounds wrong. But for anyone who’s spent any time in the South, it’s nails on a blackboard. In five out of 10 sentences, Earl uses y’all to address a single person. Not even a person, actually, but a severed head, making it even less likely Earl is somehow referring to the main character and her family or some other implied collective group: She’s literally just a head. This is more wrong than waking up as a lungless head in a space helmet, more terrifying than rogue artificial intelligences or killer robots or any futuristic horrors Double Fine could ever dream up. Maybe it’s part of the game—maybe Earl is a bad simulation of a Southerner. Or maybe the simplest rule in Southern dialect has somehow been botched once again. I’ll never know, because I couldn’t get past the beginning out of fear of how Earl might mangle the language next.
In fairness to video game writers, it’s not always a hard-and-fast rule. Arika Okrent took a look at the issue for Slate back in 2014, and concluded that the singular y’all was occasionally used, in a few special situations: particularly when Southerners exaggerated their speech to get better customer service from Northerners. (I’ve never heard that, but I’ve heard the possessive use, as in her example of How’re y’all’s grits?) But even in those rare cases, no one uses y’all exclusively instead of you, the way Earl does, even in the far distant future. And the one thing everyone agrees on is that Southerners, who actually use the word, are the ones who are most likely to insist it’s plural only. So if your character’s from the South, odds are he or she is not going to use it as a singular. (If your character’s a Northerner who is misusing the word out of ignorance or spite, you’re probably doing something too complicated for a video game.) So a good rule of thumb for non-Southerners: just use it as the plural. They still teach Latin at Andover or wherever, right? Or Spanish, at least? Would you use vosotros or ustedes or voi or whatever second person plural you’re familiar with? Use y’all. Otherwise, just play it safe and stick to you. If foreign languages make you uneasy, memorize this handy mnemonic:
If you’re speaking to one person,
Using y’all will make things worsen.
But if all of you would work,
Then it’s time for y’all, you jerk!
Don’t get fancy and don’t showboat. You’re probably already naming a character “Earl” or something, so you’re on thin ice to begin with. So let me address all of you, as in more than one of you, as in plural: Y’all have made sure that anyone who’s ever had the slightest hint of a Southern accent is an expert in what it’s like to have people think you’re dumb because of the way you talk, so trust us on this one: Y’all have gotta stop screwing this up, ’cause it’s making y’all sound stupid.