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In the Central Pennsylvania dialect of English (and possibly elsewhere), the following construction is possible:

  • This car needs washed. (=needs to be washed)
  • The room needs cleaned. (=needs to be cleaned)

It appears that, if a verb like needs is followed by a passive construction in the infinitive, the "to be" portion is left out.

This construction sounds so unnatural to my ear that I have no intuition as to the extent to which it can be extended to other words and contexts. If anyone here is a native speaker of this dialect of English, perhaps they can help to explain the limits on its use.

My basic question is: how productive is this particular construction among those who use it?

To be more specific, can this construction be used with any verb (if that verb can be immediately followed by a passive construction, of course)? That is, would (any of) the following be acceptable, for example?

  • At this restaurant, we always wait seated. (=wait to be seated)
  • My kid hates picked last in sports. (=hates to be picked)
  • We all want loved. (=want to be loved)

If this construction is restricted, then which verbs can be used, aside from need?

Edit: What I am really hoping for here is that there is someone who happens across this question that can say, "I actively use this construction, and here's what I can and can't say."

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I'm not a native speaker of the dialect, but I lived in Pittsburgh for a while and heard it plenty; I don't recall hearing it with any modal other than "needs". Also, I don't recall it being used with plural subjects very often. But I'm including this as a comment, not an answer, since my memory of how it's used isn't remotely authoritative. –  Henry Nov 22 '10 at 20:59
    
In British English we say "this car needs washing" and similar phrases a lot - I can't remember if that construction is normal in the US? –  thesunneversets Nov 22 '10 at 23:26
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@thesunneversets: Yes, it is normal to everyone in the US, except for those who have this dialect (although even for them, "needs washing" is probably an acceptable variant). –  Kosmonaut Nov 23 '10 at 0:30
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I think this dialectal omission of "to be" stems from vagueness about the difference between, say, "the activity of washing", and "the state of being washed". The second inevitably follows from the first, so in context they're almost equivalent. From that point of view I don't see much difference between dropping the activity of..., and the state of being.... –  FumbleFingers May 2 '11 at 23:21
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@PLL I can confirm this is standard Scottish usage. I can't think of anything other than "needs" and "wants" that it works with, but probably most/all verbs can be used after it e.g. "That cake needs eaten". –  neil Apr 16 '12 at 10:34

14 Answers 14

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+300

I've heard the "needs washed" construction so many times that it sounds completely normal to me.

Your other three examples, however, don't sound familiar.

I'm having a tough time thinking of a set rule for dropping "to be." I think it could work with want in addition to need, e.g. "The baby wants changed." But I can't think of other verbs that it would work with.

Edit: I actively use this construction. I was just telling my roommate the other day that "That lightbulb needs changed," and he understood me because he grew up in south central Pennsylvania, too.

I know it works with need, and I'm pretty sure it can work with want, too. (E.g., The dog wants fed.)

I'm heading back to my hometown this weekend, so I'll try to remember to ask people while I'm there. But it's kind of hard to talk about this sort of thing with people who've spoken that way their whole life and don't even know that other people talk differently. A lot of folks I know from there don't understand that most people would find the following very grating: "We're going to the mall. Do you want to come with?"

Update: I polled a few friends while I was back in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. They confirmed the construction with needs and wants, but they couldn't think of any other verbs it could work with.

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Hm I don't find "do you want to come with?" too strange. am from NYC. –  Claudiu Dec 10 '10 at 15:45
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How about "Outen the light" or "The milk is all"? Do you have those in NYC? –  Joshua Karstendick Dec 10 '10 at 19:51
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Brit, lived 5 years in Pittsburgh: “…want to come with?” is quite idiomatic to me, but I would have thought of that as an age-/subculture-related feature, more than geographical? (I think I was familiar with it already in the UK, though I can’t remember for sure.) Back on-topic, I’m with you on the main question: it mainly works with needs, and with some uses of wants. –  PLL Dec 13 '10 at 2:19
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I grew up on the Main Line west of Philadelphia. I'm also used to "come with", but not any of the others. That one must be a more widely used construct. –  Matthew Flaschen Mar 24 '11 at 19:02
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I have lived in Pittsburgh or its suburbs almost all my life; I don't speak this dialect but I hear it a lot. "Needs verbed" is the common pattern, "wants verbed" occurs, and I can't think of a third form. –  Monica Cellio Aug 28 '11 at 2:23

As a Pennsylvania native and lifelong resident, I can confirm that the "____(s) ____ed" construction extends only to needs and, in some cases and to a much lesser extent, wants. Some examples:

  • The car needs washed.
  • The dishes need washed.
  • The grass needs cut.
  • Your room needs cleaned.

However, "wants _____ed" is, in practice, of more restricted usage. The only scenario under which people use this construction is in "to be fed," as in "the dog wants fed."

I never use the "needs ___ed" in formal writing but use it in conversation frequently, and occasionally in the margins when editing a paper (e.g., "this section needs edited"). I was never critiqued for its usage in casual conversation until I attended graduate school and my advisor admonished me for using "poor-man's, blue collar English" (after which I made a crack about his use of stilted, pompous language).

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I'd like to add two things to the conversation. First, it's not only Pennsylvanian English. It seems to be quite prevalent in Indiana too... at least among my in-laws.

Secondly, I noticed by 'rhetorician' that the construct, "I want it done" is quite similar, and in fact, I have heard the phrase "It needs done" many times from my relatives.

Perhaps the "needs cleaned" language construct has nothing to with eliding the "to be" in the phrase but rather is all about conflating two different sentence constructs:

I want it painted. ("Painted" is here an adjective describing the desired state of "it")

It needs painted. ("Painted" here appears to be a past participle or gerund, but really is functioning as a nominative adjective)

Perhaps this construct is being used only where both states pertain: the word in question can be used as an adjective describing a desired state of something & the word can also be a verb describing the process of achieving that state. If this is true, then semantically, the phrase in question would fall between the other two phrases like this:

The car needs washing -> The car needs washed -> The car needs to be washed

...just so long as one could also say, "I want it washed."

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I didn't realize I used this construction until I moved to Minnesota and a wordie laughed when I said "My house needs cleaned." It could only come from my Dad, who is from southern OH, by way of Pennsylvanian immigrants from Ireland, who in turn are of Scottish ancestry.

I realize I would only use it for needs/wants. A couple of quirks about my usage I thought I'd share: I use needs more often than wants; I use it more often with the singular verb (needs) than the plural verb (need), and I use it more often when talking about an inanimate object, such as "floor", or at least an objectified person, such as "baby". But that being said, the phrases "He needs punched." and "She needs let in." do sound correct to me as well.

Sounds okay: The dress needs taken in.

Does not sound okay: He needs trained. (I would say He needs training, or He needs to be trained.)

The difference might be that the verb applied to the construction is less likely to be a permanent condition. When someone is trained, they are trained forever. Babies that are changed, floors that are washed, being punched, being let into a house, these are transient things. Does anyone else who uses this notice this pattern?

Btw, totally agree with rhetorician. If I say "The grass needs cut." then it's PAST TIME to have done it. It's more like an admonition, instead of a to-do list. The only caveat to that is that I could see saying to a house sitter, "The dog will need let out," or "The grass will need cut," which needs have not happened yet. shrugs

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Actually, in Central Pennsylvania it is not "the room needs cleaned." In proper Central Pennsylvania English, it is "the room needs read up."

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Being an "outsider" in Pittsburgh, where my family and I have lived for almost 30 years, I first picked up on "The grass needs cut" phenomenon from an acquaintance who is a Pittsburgh native. I actually had the temerity to correct his usage by suggesting he say "The grass needs to be cut" or "The grass needs cutting." I, too, have heard that this idiosyncracy is of Scottish origin.

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, for example, a boss says to an employee: "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 referring to it 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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I grew up with this usage and it still sounds normal to me. I was trying to think of cases other than needs/wants/likes and couldn't find any, but did think of a case where the usage doesn't seem to omit "to be." In a case like "The dog wants out," if you didn't say it that way, it seems like you'd say "The dog wants to go out," or "The dogs wants to be let out." I can't imagine "The dog wants to be out." I'm not sure if this is a different case.

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I think "the dog wants out" is fine in most American dialects. It certainly is fine in mine, and I don't use the "needs washed" construction. –  Peter Shor Feb 23 '13 at 13:02
    
Yes, the unique feature is when the past participle (e.g. 'washed' or 'cleaned') is used after "needs/wants". –  Kosmonaut Feb 25 '13 at 15:39

I lived in Pittsburgh and Eastern Ohio until the age of thirteen, when I moved to York, Pa. I am in my fifties. I am educated... I fully know how to speak and write the " correct" way, but honestly, the "grass needs mowed", "the dog needs fed", " redd up the room" all seem so natural to my ear. I grew up hearing this, and it Is an identifier for those who grew up in the region. I have spent time in Hawaii, and have heard locals speak pidgin with their friends, knowing that they have full knowledge of how to speak the way we are all taught in school. I feel that those of use who use colloquial terms do it because it is easy and relaxed, just like when we kick off our shoes after work. It doesn't mean we aren't smart.

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The usage needs corrected. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '12 at 23:34

I am from central PA and use this construction. I only use it with 'need' and 'want,' and I've observed that the limitations on its use have to do with whether it is an ongoing or a one-time need. For example: "The floor needs cleaned" implies that the floor is currently dirty, whereas "the floor needs to be cleaned" means that it is necessary for the floor to maintain a general state of cleanliness; it may or may not be dirty right now, but whenever it becomes dirty someone will have to clean it.

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Hmm. What about the partial/complete distinction? As in, in standard English the difference between "the floor needs cleaning" and "the floor needs to be cleaned" is that the former can be satisfied with a cursory swipe of the mop, while the latter implies that the end result ought to be a sparkling-clean floor. Which meaning is closer to your usage of "the floor needs cleaned"? –  Marthaª Aug 22 '12 at 20:40

I thought that I would give my input. My family uses a very strong "Central PA" dialect, and so do I. Your first two examples don't sound natural to me, but your last one "We all want loved" sounds like something I'd say.

Also, the participle part of the structure is usually different than standard English. Honestly, I don't know what the correct ones are elsewhere. Also, no one would ever use the -ing form. If I said something like that at home, people would think I was putting on airs.

This is only the beginning of the differences of our dialect, which closely resemble those of the Mid-South (Virginia, West Virginia, inland NC) than our northern neighbors. Feel free to ask any more questions. I have been raised speaking this way.

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I'm not from PA, but we use this form frequently in my area (OH/WV). It's acceptable to use any verb after needs/wants, and there's no distinction between the meaning of "the car needs washing" and "the car needs washed." We use "needs washed" more frequently than "needs washing," but I've heard both used. I don't hear much "needs to be washed," though.

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Well, I do actively use this construction (but I'm from Western Pa., not Central). You can't just use any combo you want, it's exclusive to needs/wants/likes + past participle and stems, I've discovered, from Scots-Irish descendants in the area.

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So, if I saw a wilted flower, could I say "This flower needs loved"? Or could I say "This software needs installed"? My point is, could you use "needs/wants/likes" plus virtually any verb? Or just a narrow group? –  Kosmonaut Jan 20 '11 at 0:41

The needs to be + passive seems to be the construction that Western/Central Pennsylvanians slide into when they spend significant time around outsiders.

I don't find this construction commonly used with any verbs other than "needs".

Also, this usage seems to be most common when speaking about cleanliness. Another classic example is "The floor needs swept", which means "The floor needs to be vacuumed".

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I've heard "wants" used in the same context. "That car wants washed." –  bikeboy389 Dec 10 '10 at 14:06
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+1 for the cleanliness observation. I think it's a little more general ("the lightbulb needs changed" and "the lawn needs mowed" are ok in this dialect), but it's not open to all verbs. Maybe it's about state changes? I'm not sure. –  Monica Cellio Aug 28 '11 at 2:28

I think it's more correct to consider "This room needs cleaned" as a variant of "This room needs cleaning", instead of (or at least in addition to) "This room needs to be cleaned". This gives a pretty good guide for when the construction is appropriate: if standard English would use wants|needs|requires + gerund, the Central PA dialect is likely to use wants|needs|requires + past tense.

The cat wants fed.

(Note that I haven't actually heard anyone use this with 'requires'.)

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"This room needs to be cleaned" and "this room needs cleaning" mean two different things; as far as I understand, "this room needs cleaned" means the former. Personally, I don't see how basing it off of the gerund gives you any more predictive power. –  Kosmonaut Nov 23 '10 at 12:33
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@bikeboy: "This room needs cleaning" can be used in a situation where the room has fallen to a level of untidiness that some amount of cleaning is needed to get it back to a reasonable level, which may or may not qualify as clean overall. "This room needs to be cleaned" means that the end result should be a clean room. Put another way, I might say "cleaning" when I am annoyed with how messy things are but don't feel like doing a major cleaning job, whereas I might say "to be cleaned" when we are having company over. –  Kosmonaut Dec 10 '10 at 15:21
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@Martha: You are right — I assume that "needs cleaned" is more similar semantically to "needs to be cleaned", and I also predict that people who use "needs cleaned" wouldn't also use "needs to be cleaned" (for a semantic difference), but I don't know for sure even about that. –  Kosmonaut Dec 11 '10 at 15:51
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@Kosmonaut, @Martha: to me there is a difference of agency in some cases between “wants Xing” and “wants to be Xed”: for instance, “the dog wants to be fed” is about the desires of the dog, while “the dog wants feeding” is about what action should be taken. Definitely in these cases, “wants Xed” comes closer to “wants Xing”, to my ear. In other cases, where for instance the subject is inanimate, I’d still think of “wants/needs Xed” as closer to “wants/needs Xing”, but I can’t articulate why. (British, lived 5 years in Pittsburgh, use “needs Xed” actively but non-natively.) –  PLL Dec 13 '10 at 2:15
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"Want" can mean "to lack", or it can mean "to desire" - I believe that the distinction between the two corresponds to @PLL's "difference of agency". –  MT_Head May 17 '11 at 16:45

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