I received a late-night text message from a friend last week. It said something like, “Is it grammatically incorrect to say something ‘needs done’? Shouldn’t it actually says something ‘needs to be done’?”
I didn’t respond to the text immediately because I had an epiphany.
“Oh my dog,” I thought, dyslexically. ”I might not be cool.”
Let’s review the facts: I’m young, unmarried, and childless. I have a Mac. I can wear ironic sweatshirts that say things like “Born to Bingo,” and it’s still almost okay. I live just 650 miles outside of New York City (the rent is much cheaper out here in what I choose to believe are the NYC ‘burbs. Boy, look at me, just pushing my opinions on you. I am such a New Yorker! Aren’t the Knicks such a skilled basketball club?).
So when I get a late night text message, it should say something like, “Hey, want to go hit up that new rave club and smoke on glow sticks?” or “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … except the diseases I got. Those are coming with me! Hashtag Instagram!”
But instead, I get late night text messages with grammar questions. And a few days after that text message, I found myself in another shameful situation: it was around midnight on Friday, and I was at a friend’s apartment. We were trying to decide whether we should stay up and watch another episode of Grey’s Anatomy, or if we should just go to bed. We starting hashing out the pros and cons of each decision, until my friend’s mom (who was also there, if that adds to the cool, hip factor) looked at us with what I think was disgust, and said, “Oh my gosh. It’s Friday night. Watch an episode of your show.”
When you’ve gotten to the point that your “crazy Friday night” option–that you have to be talked into by somebody’s mother–is watching an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy in your pajamas, then you’re in a very sad state. And I’m not talking about New Jersey!
So what do you do when you realize you may not be cool? You prove the haters wrong! You see that late night grammar text message, you digest its implications, and you decide to react in the coolest way possible: you put on sunglasses and a backwards visor, open your computer, and start typing on your grammar blog.
As a reminder, the question at hand deals with sentences that say things like, “These dishes need washed” or “The dog needs walked.” I’d never heard that kind of sentence construction in Illinois, but it’s rampant in Indiana and Ohio. The first time I heard someone talk like that–an intelligent person, just saying stupid stuff like it was fine–I threw up all over them. Just all over their body.
After we cleaned up the mess, I laughed, and said, “Do you realize what you said? Didn’t you mean that it ‘needs to be done’? Don’t you feel so dumb?” The person looked at me in total confusion. She saw nothing wrong with what she had said, and said that everyone talked like that.
I started noticing it everywhere after that. Generally, folks from Illinois on west don’t use that sentence construction. Linguists theorize over its origin; Barbara Johnstone of Carnegie Mellon calls it “infinitive copula deletion.” Basically, people who talk like this are deleting the “to be” from sentences that use the verbs needs, wants, and likes. Instead of, “The room needs to be cleaned,” people who speak like this say, “The room needs cleaned.” Instead of “The cat wants to be fed,” they say, “The cat wants fed.”
To people in the Indiana to Pennsylvania region (especially), this construction sounds completely normal. To people outside of that region, it sounds insane.
Unfortunately, while there’s a lot of postulating and theorizing about the nature of this construction, there isn’t a hard and fast rule about it. The “needs + past participle” construction (and that’s what this is) comes from the Scots-Irish, and it’s just a dialectical oddity.
The practical rule is this: if you’re in a region (say, writing a cover letter or interviewing for a job) that doesn’t use this strange sentence construction, avoid it. You do need to know that when people who have never heard somebody say something “needs washed,” they react very poorly to it. I’ve heard it so often over the past 7 years in Indiana and Ohio that I’ve even caught myself saying it. The first time I said it–with complete nonchalance–around Evan, he looked at me in horror and then, just like he ought to have, stabbed me in the stomach with a sword. I deserved it.
If you’re from a region where you hear this kind of construction used all the time, I’m not going to stop you. You might not even realize that this is a dialectical pattern that most of the United States doesn’t use. I would just caution you that if you’re ever in a position where you’re trying to impress anybody–and you don’t know their views on infinitive copula deletion (though I don’t know why you wouldn’t; it’s always the first question I ask at dinner parties, and that is why I am a popular person)–use your infinitives. Adding that little “to be” in there will make all the difference to a non-Midwesterner.
But look at me, prattling on and on like a New Yorker. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go take public transportation (along with an aggrandized sense of geographical self-importance) into the city I call my home.
I do have an 11 1/2 hour commute, so if you want to call me or text me about the latest young people parties, please do. I’ve been looking to go to one of those Project X get-togethers and to take some pudding shots, but only if there will be DJs spinning hip-hop records and sporting ears with multiple piercings.