In recent years, there have been a number of public discussions around the use of gendered terms to address certain groups of people. Some argue that "girl" is infantilizing when used to refer to adult women, while "boy" doesn't have the same gendered connotations. Others note that while the term "guys" is used colloquially to refer to a group of people regardless of gender, its usage dismisses women who are present and reinforces a view of men as the default.
In an effort to understand Americans' views on the subject, YouGov conducted a poll on the acceptability of referring to groups of women as "girls" and groups of men as "boys," as well as the usage of the terms "y'all" and "you guys" when addressing groups of men and women.
The findings suggest that the perceived acceptability of "girls" and "boys" to refer to adult women and men depends on the context in which the terms are used. "Guys" is more widely accepted when used by men to refer to a group of men, but its usage becomes more uncertain when referring to mixed or all-women groups. Other second-person plural pronouns, such as "y'all" or "folks" are less likely to be used than "you guys" among Americans overall, though "y'all" is favored by Southerners. Most Americans believe it is usually acceptable for people from all regions to say "y'all," but some exceptions are noted when it comes to its usage among non-native Southerners.
Is it acceptable to refer to women as "girls"?
Is it demeaning to refer to adult women as "girls"? A total of 41% of Americans believe it is usually (25%) or always (16%) unacceptable to refer to women as girls. Slightly more — 49% — say it is acceptable — either usually (35%) or always (14%).
Women are less OK with the term "girls" than men are. While men are more likely to say it's acceptable than unacceptable for men to refer to women this way, women are more likely to say it's unacceptable. Men's and women's views are more aligned on whether it is acceptable for women to refer to women as "girls" (63% of men say it's usually or always acceptable versus 55% of women).
Is it acceptable to refer to women as "ladies"?
The term "ladies" is a far more accepted alternative: A majority of men and women say it's always acceptable for men and women to refer to a group of adult women in this way.
Is it acceptable to refer to men as "boys"?
"Boys" is sometimes seen as the male equivalent of "girls" — and Americans have similar ideas about the acceptability of both terms. A little over half of Americans — 55% — believe it's usually or always acceptable for men to refer to men as boys, while 36% believe it is usually or always unacceptable. When it comes to what is acceptable for women to say, 52% say it's usually or always OK for them to refer to men as "boys," while 39% say it usually or always isn't.
Is it acceptable to refer to women as "guys"?
Another gendered term that has been the subject of debate is "guys" — used by some as a gender-inclusive singular pronoun in "you guys." Others argue that "guys" specifically refers to men and is therefore not inclusive of women.
While the vast majority of people think it's usually or always acceptable to use "guys" to refer to a group of men, fewer are sure about its usage to refer to a mixed group of men and women or a group of only women. When asked about men using the term "guys," 82% of Americans say it is usually or always acceptable when referring to a group of men, while 77% say it is when referring to a mixed group of men and women; just 63% say so about a group of only women.
Is it acceptable to say "y'all" outside of the South?
In response to the debate over the term "guys," some people have advocated for the use of terms like "y'all" or "folks," as more inclusive options. Others people always used these terms, regardless of their stance on the debate over "you guys." This separation is in part, regional, with "y'all" being the preferred term among a plurality of people residing in the South (38%). Compared to Southerners, people in other regions — the Northeast, Midwest, and West — are roughly 20 percentage points less to prefer using "y'all" for a mixed group of men and women. For these three regions, "you guys" is still dominant, though with "you all" and "y'all" are tied for second place among people in the Northeast and West; "you all" beats out "y'all" among people in the Midwest. "Folks" is also relatively popular among people in all regions but the South. Some people also said they use "something else" and wrote in alternatives such as "ladies and gentlemen."
The dominance of "y'all" in the South has led some to argue that its usage is unique to Southern culture and should be used only by native Southerners. Americans generally reject this stance, with most arguing that it's usually acceptable for people from all regions to say "y'all." However, more say there are sometimes exceptions to when people not from the South can use y'all than say this about people from the South. People from the South are more likely than people from the other two coastal regions — the Northeast and West — to say it's acceptable for non-native Southerners to use "y'all."
See a related survey from the UK: Is it acceptable to refer to women as “girls”?
— Carl Bialik, Linley Sanders, and Matthew Smith contributed to this article
Methodology: This poll was conducted online on December 7 - 11, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.
Image: Adobe Stock (ViDi Studio)