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I'm from Central Pennsylvania, and apparently, we have a strange language construct in this area. I was recently talking about how "my car needs washed" to a friend from NJ, and she told me that my sentence was grammatically incorrect.

I realize she's right, and I realize my options are "my car needs to be washed" or "my car needs washing". But I'm not clear on the precise rule being invoked.

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After having a conversation with my old grammar professor about why "the car needs washed" is grammatically incorrect, this is what he had to say: past participles cannot be in the direct object slot of a sentence. So then we have two options: 1) turn the past participle into a present participle "my car needs washing" or 2) add "to be" and shift "washed" out of the direct object slot. – D e v v i n May 8 '11 at 15:09
This usage is also common in the north-east of England. I remember when I was young we used to get the Beano comic, published in that area, and the characters would often say things like this, to our amusement. – Daniel Roseman May 9 '11 at 18:14
up vote 10 down vote accepted

From a strict descriptivist standpoint, your "the car needs washed" construction is not grammatically incorrect - if we're talking about the Central Pennsylvania flavor of English, that is. But your friend is right that this construction is not found in more standard varieties of English, and can be considered incorrect in formal writing.

Anyway... I think the difference between The car needs to be washed and The car needs washing is the degree of cleanliness that will thus be achieved. The -ing version just says the car needs to get some water applied; the end result could be a clean car, or just a slightly cleaner car. The 'to be' version, on the other hand, states that the desired end result is a completely clean car. Which one is the better equivalent for the "needs washed" construction is something you can answer better than I can.

I will note that in most cases, the difference between the -ing and 'to be' versions of a phrase is pretty subtle, and context is king: if your mom says "your room needs cleaning", you'd better assume she wants a sparkling-clean end result, grammar notwithstanding.

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I think your third paragraph rules here, too. I've never heard anyone say "The car needs washing" to mean "The car could, technically, be cleaner than it is." – Matthew Read May 6 '11 at 21:26
@Matthew Read: It is just that "your room needs cleaning" is ambiguous about the end result and you would use context to determine what is expected. So, with your mother you know she wants a clean room. If it is your roommate in college who looks at the table covered in beer bottles and Chinese takeout containers and says "this room needs cleaning", you'd probably interpret that differently from "this room needs to be cleaned". I would, at least. – Kosmonaut May 7 '11 at 13:12
@Kosmonaut & Martha: I don't use the -ing form because it doesn't say exactly what I want. If my "car needs (to be) washed", I want it washed and over with. When people say "my car needs washing" it seems to mean that they want it to be in the process of being washed. – D e v v i n May 8 '11 at 15:04

I grew up in the South of Scotland and find this usage entirely ordinary: the construction "your car needs washing", however, to my ears sounds gauche or pompous. Ironically, I immigrated to Ohio which, along with Pennsylvania, I understand, is one of the few parts of the United States within which this usage is commonplace. My son drew my attention to this phenomenon after he moved to Berkeley California and was derided by the locals. He believes this phenomenon followed the Scots-Irish as they emigrated to Appalachia.

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You should tell this to @Kosmonaut. He is particularly interested in the source of the construction. – Robusto Apr 8 '12 at 13:47
I'm an Oregon native, and didn't consciously realize this construct was 'incorrect' until I was in my thirties. I used it all the time growing up. My family has Scottish heritage, but has been in the states since the 1700's, and on the west coast for several generations. Interesting how such things persist. – kbelder Feb 18 '13 at 17:08
I'm from southern England, and lived for 2 years in Aberdeen. Of all the features of the scottish dialect, "needs washed" struck me as the oddest, as it seemed so grammatically wrong to my ears. Scottish vocabulary and pronunciation were of course greater differences, but those differences did not defy my southern logic. – Level River St Apr 26 at 18:31

They're essentially synonymous. However, if you use the infinitive, you do need the "to".

In everyday speech, the "-ing" variant is probably a bit more common, whereas the variant with the infinitive is probably a little more common in formal usage.

In general where either -ing form or infinitive is possible ("they began doing it" vs "they began to do it"), there's also a slight difference in emphasis between the 'process' vs 'outcome' of an action which may come into play here. So saying "He needs teaching a lesson" focusses a little more on the action of "teaching him a lesson", whereas "He needs to be taught a lesson" emphasises the idea of his new status as a reformed character. But I think it's fair to say that it's a subtle difference and the two expressions are basically synonymous to all intents and purposes.

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Personally, I would avoid the -ing form with a transitive verb. – Marthaª May 6 '11 at 21:27
Yes, I perhaps could have made it clearer that some speakers do, for whatever reason, avoid the "-ing" construction here and probably a few more avoid it in formal usage. I personally think the arguments for avoiding it are fairly spurious and it's a frequent, naturally occurring construction. However, you're also by no means alone in avoiding it. – Neil Coffey May 6 '11 at 22:46

What no one has mentioned thus far in this thread (I think) is what that construction means and how it's used! Personally, I take it to be similar in meaning to the locution in which a boss says to an employee regarding a particular task: "I'd like it done yesterday!" Similarly, if the grass is really long, making it imperative that it be cut right away, then you use "needs cut" to emphasize that fact. In other words, you are sort of referring to the task as a fait accompli, even before you've done it; that's how soon it needs to be done--I mean, needs done. Make sense?

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Personally, I think this is fine. It wouldn't be acceptable in anything formal, but your meaning is quite clear. You're just eliding the "to be"; while this is not super common outside specific areas, the general format of leaving out words/sounds is quite common in English.

I don't use this particular construction, nor does anyone I speak to regularly, but I'm familiar enough with it to not bat an eye.

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I imagine you're using a closely related dialect. I have never heard anyone elide words like that. It looks very odd to my eyes. – Marcin May 6 '11 at 21:39
"needs washed" (or substitute any other verb for washed) is a common construction in certain American dialects, although I don't know its geographical distribution. – Peter Shor May 6 '11 at 22:15
@Marcin I'm Canadian, the dialect is quite different. – Matthew Read May 7 '11 at 15:50

Could German influence be at work here? In Central PA it would make sense.

I don't know German grammar that well, but this construction reminds me of wird gemacht versus wird gemacht werden. In other words, German seems to often say the clothes "will washed" or "become washed" instead of the more formal form "will be washed" or "will become washed." However, German effectively uses the verb become to form the future tense so I could be on a linguistic wild goose chase.

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In German, "needs to be washed" would be "muss (mal/dringend/bald) gewaschen werden", which does not really resemble the "needs washed" structually. – teylyn May 7 '11 at 0:30
Yeah, I didn't really mean the literal translation. (I did sort of state it sloppily, though, so your clarification is helpful.) I was rather thinking about the general pattern of German sometimes omitting one of the verbs in a passive construction for simplicity. I can imagine that 1st-gen English speakers might apply patterns that would resemble their native language, but I'm really just speculating. – CynicallyNaive May 12 '11 at 15:12
It appears to originally come from Scotland; see Grammar Girl. – Peter Shor Jan 29 '12 at 15:38


Really good article about this, with clues about where to read up on other theories about "needs washed".

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