I have worked in various places where "do the needful" is quite the common idiom. However, in some situations, both parties might not be quite aligned precisely with what falls under the scope of "needful".

Is there a concise idiom that one can respond with to clearly convey that, while it may be blatantly obvious to the requester what classifies as "needful", it is not so clearly defined to the party who the request is directed towards?


For those of you unfamiliar with the idiom, it is an Indian English phrase which loosely translates into something along the lines of, "I assume that it is clear to you what needs to be done as well as how to do it, so kindly do so." Essentially, what I am looking for is a proper response that is along the lines of, "Sorry, but your assumption(that either I know what needs to be done or how to perform it) is invalid."


This question is simply out intellectual curiosity as to whether or not a concise, idiomatic response exists.

  • You could ask for a timeline for the expected activities. That would hide any uncertainty in what activities are required.
    – Marconius
    Jul 24 '15 at 19:18
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    This very problem is one reason this idiom is despised by native speakers; in general, the requestor asking you to "do the needful" has no idea what is required, and moreover the phrase makes it sound like he also doesn't care. It's a supercilious and dismissive wave of the hand: "Just take care of this will you? There's a good chap.". Now I've heard it argued by non-native speakers that this is a misinterpretation, and that requestors who say "do the needful" do so because they are aware they don't know how to get it done themselves. But I think that's an apologia.
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 24 '15 at 19:49
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    I may be wrong, however, the usage seem to carry with it an implication that .. ..the other party is "well-versed" with the work which has to be done and it is left upon him/her to figure out.
    – Misti
    Jul 24 '15 at 20:43
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    @DanBron: I don't think it's specifically native speakers who should object to this idiom, since they have the equivalent do what's necessary or do what needs to be done. Jul 28 '15 at 0:14
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    Is it different from "do what needs to be done"? Jul 30 '15 at 0:13

A snappy response (I don't know if this would be a polite phrase in Indian English):

And the needful being...?

A constructive, slightly longer response:

[First, restate the problem to be solved] Did I get that right? [Hopefully this gets a nod.] I want to make sure we're on the same page about how to solve this [OR how to proceed].

My idea here is to show that you have been doing good listening by restating the problem.

  • 1
    Agreed. I'm thinking it might sound less confrontational if it was phrased like: "Certainly, but what's 'the needful' in this case?" Adding something like "sir" or "ma'am" probably wouldn't hurt either. Jul 24 '15 at 23:13

Indian here. Aren't you being a little paranoid about this? Just ask.

Whenever I get such a response and I'm unsure, I immediately pounce on the person concerned: "What exactly do I need to do? I'm not clear on the actions I'm supposed to take."

If they do clarify, great! If not, then ask them if you could either work on it together and plan something out, or request them to ask their boss (or whoever assigned the work to y'all) to go in detail about 'the needful'.

  • No, I don't feel like I am being paranoid, simply curious as to whether or not there is an appropriate idiomatic response. Jul 27 '15 at 23:37

I've never heard "do the needful" in the wild, but it sounds kind of British. With that in mind, if all that is desired is a snappy comeback, perhaps this line from the BBC comedy Yes, Minister will serve:

We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it.

An internet search indicates that this line has achieved something of a life of its own, and has become known as "the Politician's Syllogism". See the Wikipedia article.

(If that's no good, consider "smurf me a smurf of smurf", from The Smurfs and the Magic Flute. Long story short, the speaker is asking for a glass of water in what he imagines to be the smurfs' vernacular, but the smurfs themselves have no idea what he means. )

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    Also, to my (American) ears, "do the needful" sounds like a euphemism for "use the bathroom". Jul 24 '15 at 20:28
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    +1 - Yeah... an American would probably answer: "You mean right here, on the floor?"
    – Oldbag
    Jul 24 '15 at 21:19
  • Me neither, it was just a feeling. Wikipedia says that British, Indian, and American dialects of English included the phrase "do the needful" until at least the early 20th century, so I guess it just goes to show. Jul 24 '15 at 22:56
  • I, an American, had never heard this phrase until I worked daily with a call centre in India, and haven't since leaving that job. But while working with them, it was a common idiom. I can only imagine what phrases we used that they were completely baffled by.
    – Nanban Jim
    Jul 25 '15 at 16:49
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    @NanbanJim I once had an unexpected reaction to an off-hand "oh, that's a shame". It was taken as a severe piece of criticism (the addressee understood that she was to be shamed for whatever it was that happened).
    – oerkelens
    Jul 27 '15 at 14:59

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