Yo as a Pronoun

Researchers discover that kids are using "yo" as a slang pronoun.

Mignon Fogarty
Episode #091

Yo as a Pronoun

Yo! Grammar Girl here.

I have grammar news about the word yo this week.

Yo as a Pronoun

The grammar news is that Dr. Elaine Stotko, from the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, and her student, Margaret Troyer, have discovered that school children in Baltimore are using the slang word yo as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Dr. Stotko was teaching a master’s class at Johns Hopkins, and it came out during a discussion that several of the high school and middle school English teachers had noticed their students using yo as a pronoun. Often the students would be talking to another student, would point at the third person they were referring to, and would say something like "Yo threw a thumbtack at me." This made teachers think they were using yo to mean "he or she" instead of yo as you would normally hear in phrases like "Yo momma."

To test the theory, Stotko and Troyer showed kids a cartoon with a goofy-looking person, but the kids couldn't tell whether the person was male or female. Then they asked the kids to write a slang caption for the cartoon. Some of the kids wrote, "Yo crazy," instead of "He or she crazy," or "They crazy." Follow-up research showed that kids definitely intended yo to mean "he or she." They used yo
as a pronoun.

The researchers found that it was most common for the kids to use yo in the subject position; for example, "Yo wearin' a new coat," (to point out someone wearing a new coat). But they also used yo in the object position, as in "I saw yo at school," and "Look at yo." [Note: the kids also use "yo" as a generic pronoun to refer to someone even when they know it is a boy or a girl. So, for example, even though they know the person they saw at school was a boy, they might say, "I saw yo at school," instead of "I saw him at school."

The kids also frequently use yo as an attention-getter (as in "Yo, Adrienne"), and as a shortened version of your (as in "Yo momma"), but the researchers were careful to show that the use as a pronoun was distinct from these other uses.

In the past I've advocated strongly for using they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun when you can't rewrite the sentence to make the whole thing plural, and I still believe that's the best solution, but I also think the emergence of yo to fill this role in slang is fascinating.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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