This questions concerns the singular or plural form of the word "need". It might concern the property of the word "need" under different circumstances, which consequently affects whether it can inflect normally. Under which circumstance is it considered a catenative verb and which auxiliary verb?

I found both "need" and "needs" have many search results in terms of the phrase "one need/needs only".

For example:

1.Should one have any doubts about this proposition, one need only look to the perplexing case of Army Specialist Michael New.

2.But one needs only look at Ronsard to realise how much Catullus influenced him.

One is singular, should not need be changed to "needs" as well? Can anyone help me with this problem?

  • 2
    I think this question might be better suited to ELL.SE. However, I think the point might be that 'one' replaces 'I', and the first-person singular is 'need', not 'needs'.
    – Jessica B
    Jan 2, 2016 at 8:28
  • what is ELL.SE may I ask? Is it another section of this forum?
    – Shim Shay
    Jan 2, 2016 at 8:37
  • @ShimShay A question and answer site for speakers of other languages learning English -- ell.stackexchange.com
    – Kyle
    Jan 2, 2016 at 8:38
  • oh, thank you @Kyle, I'll definitely check it out.
    – Shim Shay
    Jan 2, 2016 at 8:39
  • 15
    I think this question is just fine here. The fact that Jessica B didn't know the answer -- she knew to use need, but not the reason why -- is evidence that this question can be of value to native speakers, not just learners.
    – ruakh
    Jan 2, 2016 at 8:40

1 Answer 1


The most common use of need is as a regular catenative verb, taking a to-infinitive as its complement. In that use, it inflects normally (need/needs/needing/needed), can follow an auxiliary verb, and so on: "I might need to talk to him."

However, in a rather formal style of English, there also exists an auxiliary verb ("helping verb") need, which is followed by a bare infinitive, and is only used in negative polarity contexts: with not, with only, in questions, and so on. Additionally, it only exists in the present tense. Aside from these two restrictions, it's very much like other auxiliary verbs (can, may, should, etc.): "We need not discuss it."

So your first example ("[…] one need only look […]") is correct — using the auxiliary verb need — whereas your second example ("[…] one needs only look […]") is wrong — it should either be "one need only look" (using the auxiliary verb), or "one only needs to look" (using the regular verb).

Another verb that behaves this way, by the way, is dare.

  • 1
    This looks like a very good answer. It really needs supporting quotes from accepted authorities to license this explanation of the two usages of need (and you need to attribute properly). Jan 2, 2016 at 11:55
  • If you want I can add cites,as @EdwinAshworth wanted, from CGEL which has a nice little subchapter 2.5.5 on Need and dare essentially explaining exactly what you say.
    – DRF
    Jan 2, 2016 at 17:02
  • Ah, I think I've tracked down where John Lawler addresses the whole issue here. Jan 2, 2016 at 17:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.