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Recently I ran across the sentence:

"Just why the law prescribed thirty-nine lashes instead of forty or forty-one and so on, must needs remain unanswered."

How did a plural verb like "needs" wind up as an adverb? Is it alone in this phenomenon, or are there other examples that appear to be an odd misplacement of a second verb, but are actually adverbs as well?

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Answers have quite thoroughly addressed the actual question, but just to make it clear: ‘needs’ (in its verbal form) is specifically not plural, but singular. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 31 '13 at 14:19
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4 Answers

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Needs is an old-fashioned or even archaic adverb in modern English. It comes from the noun need and the Germanic masculine/neuter genitive ending -s, which at some point in time came to be used in older English and other Germanic languages to form adverbs. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

In once, twice, thrice, hence, since, etc., the suffix is written differently. In against, alongst, amongst, amidst, and the dialectal onst (see once), the original -es, -s has become -st.

This suffix is still frequent and semi-productive with other stems in Dutch: onverwachts "unexpectedly", daags na "a day after", etc. I believe German has similar examples. English always, sideways etc. contain the same suffix.

In Old English or earlier, before the emergence of the adverbial suffix -s, there existed several masculine and neuter words in the genitive case—which ended on -(e)s—that were used adverbially: dæges "by day", nédes "needs", þances "voluntarily". By analogy, this masculine/neuter genitive ending was extended to make adverbs out of feminine nouns as well, as in nihtes "by night". From there it became a general adverbial suffix. (Examples were taken from the OED.)

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Very interesting,"Cerberus, proficiat! Contemporary German still has "nachts" for "by night", even though "Nacht" is feminine. –  Georges Elencwajg Jul 19 '11 at 17:19
@GeorgesElencwajg: Ah, that's what I thought (I was too lazy to look it up; Dutch has 's nachts, where 's is short for des, oddly enough; but Dutch is notoriously sloppy with sexes). –  Cerberus Jul 19 '11 at 20:13
Do please note that needs must alternates with must needs, and that these days they are about equally seen — or unseen, as the case may be. –  tchrist Mar 28 at 17:18
@tchrist: Noted! I believe I use either order myself. –  Cerberus Mar 29 at 1:05
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I'm not so sure it "wound up" an adverb/adjective. Chaucer wrote A man must needs love mauger his head (where I'm guessing mauger relates to French malgré = in spite of)

Thanks to @pavium for this link - which deserves more upvotes than my answer!

The usage is generally archaic/formal/academic. It probably survives partly because it echoes the equally archaic needs must [when the Devil drives].

It's not a "plural verb" (nor "second person singular verb", nor "plural noun"). I think it's always been an adverb meaning "necessarily". I'm not aware of any other words that happen to be both noun and verb and have an [archaic] adverbial form that's the same apart from ending is 's', but even if there were, I doubt you could call it a meaningfully productive 'pattern'.

Semantically, needs functions as an intensifier to the preceding must. It doesn't really need to be present - it's just adding emphasis, with perhaps a touch of gravitas from the archaic overtones.

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This question was discussed here:


While the reference classifies needs as an adverb, I think it owes more to [the imagined requirements of] conjugation than number for the 's' at the end. (as in 'I need', 'He needs', etc)

It's more likely a writer affecting a older style of writing, in line with the subject of corporal punishment.

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Your conjecture about conjugation is surely shot down by the fact that We needs must... is just as acceptable as He needs must... –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 '11 at 5:23
I already added the word 'imagined' to point out that what the OP thought was plural might be explained another way. Perhaps simply reproduction of earlier usage. I can't argue with the learned explanations in other answers, but I might leave my answer, if only because of the 'randomhouse' link. –  pavium Jul 19 '11 at 6:33
It is an excellent link, I agree. I was only disputing the conjugation bit. I also agree with your last sentence, which is echoed by my last. But cutting to the chase - can I pinch your link if I give credit? :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 '11 at 13:46
By all means, FF. –  pavium Jul 19 '11 at 13:58
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It may be helpful to read the phrase must needs as must, of necessity.

Why does this make sense? As mentioned by others here, the -s on needs is an artifact from the Germanic genitive suffix -es, used most often to show possession. In modern German, the genitive case can usually be translated to English using the preposition of.

For instance, in das Kleid meines Schwesters, the suffix -es has been added in place of a preposition in order to make clear the owner of the dress (meines is genitive, cp. the alternative dative von meiner). In English, the phrase could read my sister's dress, or, more aptly, the dress of my sister. The analogy to "must needs" and "must, of necessity" is immediate.

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