To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book there. “You come over, I’ll feed you and we’ll talk about it,” says a small-town doctor to the protagonist, who replies, “About what?” “All the shit that needs talked about.”

This pattern isn’t news. It’s well known among linguists and lexicographers that, in needs + to be +past participle, people who live south of the North, north of the South, west of the Atlantic coast and east of the Rockies sometimes omit to be. It helps define what linguists call the Midlands dialect region, though there are a few outliers as well.

The well-informed Dictionary of American Regional English, for example, knows all about the construction. It gives examples from the Appalachians, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania, especially Pittsburgh. And DARE notes that needs + past participle probably came from the English of Scotland or Northern Ireland, where the construction is also found. (There’s a similar, though more complicated, situation with wants, as DARE indicates, with examples from Pittsburgh, “The customer wants served” and “You want spanked?”)

What’s notable about this pattern is that for the most part it escapes the opprobrium of prescriptivists. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage simply calls it “a curious construction,” though it cites a 1984 dictionary, published in London, saying it is “widely disliked.”

More typical, however, is Grammar Girl’s ambivalence: “It’s reasonable to say that, at least in certain communities in the North Midland region, the ‘needs washed‘ construction is standard. Nobody who grew up there notices it as odd or thinks it’s wrong.” But, she adds, “people who move to the North Midland region from other areas will likely think everyone else there is speaking ‘bad’ English.” The quotation marks around “bad” indicate that Grammar Girl herself isn’t casting stones.

So we find on the Internet a service in Salina, Kan., asking “Do you have furniture that needs repaired?” and from Iowa, “I know, my windshield needs washed,” and from Columbus, Ohio, on Craigslist, a Samsung 500 gb hard drive, “like new, I’m just upgrading to a larger one. It only needs erased/reformatted before use.”

I’m from Chicago, north of the Midlands, so the absence of to be still catches me by surprise, like the double modals that might could actually be heard in the South. But in a student paper, does it need corrected?

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