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The Word

Lawn needs cut

To be or not to be

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
November 11, 2007

CHARLIE BERTHOUD MOVED to Pittsburgh five years ago, but he and his family are still having a bit of trouble with the local lingo.

"The words to be are eliminated from phrases on a regular basis," he reports in an e-mail. "The sink needs fixed. The lawn needs cut. Just last week, we got a notice from our son's school, saying that the kids' homework 'needs reviewed' by parents."

For him, as for many Americans, there are two proper ways to phrase these needs: The sink either "needs to be fixed" or "needs fixing." Is this third option wrong, Berthoud wonders, or just a regional variation?

Or both, he might have added. Needs fixed is usually labeled a regionalism, most familiar in western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio, in the Midland dialect area. The Oxford English Dictionary labels it Scottish, Irish, and northern English as well, and it has friends in Australia and New Zealand.

So whether it sounds wrong may depend on where you come from. Having spent my formative years near the Midland dialect border, I surely heard "it needs washed" and "they need cleaned." I don't think I ever used them, but they don't sound utterly bizarre.

And if you grow up in needs fixed country, of course it sounds normal. Jim Heinrich, a copy editor and page designer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was in his 30s before he learned that the usage might be stigmatized. In an e-mail, he recalled his 1990 visit to film critic Pauline Kael, then living in Great Barrington, Mass. "When she told me that something in her house 'needed fixing,' I thought it sounded stilted!"

But for others, needs fixed and its fellows are not quite respectable. Patricia O'Conner, who grew up in Iowa, panned it last month on her Grammarphobia blog. "Many authorities consider [it] illegitimate usage," she said, whereas the two other variants, needs to be washed and needs washing, are "both well established and both grammatically correct."

In fact, though, I haven't found those "many authorities" who condemn needs fixed.Though the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) labels it nonstandard, most usage books don't mention it at all.

And though everyone calls it a regionalism, needs fixed has planted its flag in territories far from home. Some recent examples from newspapers include "yardwork needs done" (Lincoln, Neb., Journal Star); "$75 million worth of road resurfacing that needs done" (Naples, Fla., Daily News); and "something needs done" (Athens, Ala., News-Courier).

In the informal, unedited environs of Craigslist, the usage is even more widespread: "Will do any housework that needs done" (Orlando). "Speedometer needs repaired" (Boise). "Front door needs fixed" (Bakersfield, Calif.).

True, needs fixed is a relatively recent usage, attested in print for less than a century. That's one of O'Conner's arguments against it; the alternative forms, needs to be fixed and needs fixing, date back to the 14th century, she notes.

But there's another recent use of need, about the same vintage as needs fixed, that we all find acceptable: The OED's first example, from 1911, is "Any dirty work you need done." That is, if the thing being fixed (washed, done) is the object rather than the subject of the verb, we like it just fine. She needs it done today.

And yet, the same infinitive is omitted in both expressions:

He needs the car [to be] washed.

The car needs [to be] washed.

Why would the first become standard while the second remained a minority usage? Maybe because, with needs to be fixed and needs fixing already in circulation, there was little demand for the third variation, needs fixed.

Or maybe there's no good reason. Writing on Language Log last month, Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky used the needs washed construction as an example of the limits of our ability to explain language choices. A linguist can tell you that needs washed is "a continuation of a pattern in the speech of Scots-Irish settlers in the U.S." he said.

If that's not enough, "we explain that the construction makes syntactic sense: the subject of needs washed is understood as the object of the verb WASH, so the semantics here is a lot like the semantics of the passive, and we use the past participle form (washed) in the passive, so why not use it here?"

But much as we hate to hear it, said Zwicky, there are lots of usage features whose existence we simply can't explain. When Pittsburgher Jim Heinrich says of his native needs washed, "I don't understand why it would be so horrendous," the answer is simple: It wouldn't be horrendous if more of us happened to use it.

So if you think Pittsburgh's grammar needs corrected, consider the alternative: Maybe the majority's attitude needs adjusted.

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