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My learned colleague @Mededitor tweeted today about a gentleman who thinks that English grammar has gone all to hell because of the word guys.

In "Our Dying Grammar" at speakwithoutinterruption.com, Robert Fantina complains that guys is being used to refer to women as well as men, and is found in formal and business contexts as well as conversation:

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"The word is creeping into the lexicon in more and more ways that this writer finds a bit irritating. In a recent ‘helpful hints’ article, a couple wrote in to ask advice about selling their house as-is, or spending some money to fix it up first. The professional who writes the column started his advice this way: 'It’s really up to you guys to decide.' Is the word ‘guys’ really necessary there? Does it add anything? If he had said, 'it’s really up to you to decide’, would some meaning have been lost? ‘You’, after all, can be single or plural. ‘It’s up to you (both husband and wife) to decide’."

Mr. Fantina's attention soon appears to wander, as he complains about a text in which a writer has misplaced an apostrophe and deplores the online slang of The Young, all of which, as you will have surmised, indicates that "the spoken and written word are being dumbed down to a point that sounding educated is rare."

But let's just stick with guy for the moment.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows a fifteenth-century sense of guy as "guide" or "conductor." After the Gunpowder Plot was exposed, guy came to indicate an effigy of Guy Fawkes, then generalized to a "person of grotesque appearance," and by the mid-nineteenth century a  "man" or "fellow." More recently, the OED notes the arrival of a colloquial "form of address to a man. Also in pl. as a form of address to a group of people, in later use sometimes a mixed group of all-female group."

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So if Mr. Fantina wishes to complain about the shifting meanings of the word, he has come a little late to the game.

Such complaints are, of course, idle, because words mean whatever people collectively make them mean. One still occasionally hears from people who bemoan that "homosexual" has overtaken the earlier senses of gay, but there is absolutely nothing they can do about it but whine pointlessly.

But there is more to Mr. Fantina's complaint than the mutability of words. It's plain that he also objects to the proliferation of colloquialisms in business. There, too, there is little to be done, because American business has embraced that just-folks chatter since George Babbitt flourished in Zenith. One can sympathize, but aside from gritting one's teeth, there is nothing to be done.

It is near the end of his screed that we discover what is really eating at Mr. Fantina, and it is the same thing that appears to afflict many peevers: "Perhaps this writer should stop going against the tide, and recognize that language has changed since he received his bachelor’s degree in English decades ago. Perhaps he should adopt the new fashion, rather than being stuck in the late twentieth century."

Perhaps he should. I also received a bachelor's degree in English a while back (1973), when that stiff and pompous "this writer" construction was still in vogue in journalism. The language has moved on, but its grammar is not defunct. I have moved on. It wouldn't hurt Mr. Fanina much to get a move on.

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