We can say both of the following:

  1. The carrots need to be chopped.
  2. The carrots need chopping.

How does the grammar of these sentences affect their meaning? Why is it that in these instances need takes a passive infinitival clause in (1) but an active gerund-participle clause in (2)?

Relating to this, why is it that we cannot say either of the following instead of the examples above:

  1. *The carrots need to chop.
  2. *The carrots need being chopped.

This question is being asked because of this question here, which got migrated to ELL.

  • 4
    There's "grammatically correct" and then there's "making sense". They're all grammatically correct, but unless the "carrots" are students in carrot costumes in the school play, and "chop" is the dance they do, #3 makes no sense, since carrots are (except in horror movies) inanimate objects.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 24, 2016 at 17:35
  • 4
    So, the question is why need requires a passive in an infinitive complement, but can take an active gerund? Nov 24, 2016 at 17:58
  • 2
    @JohnLawler Yes, kinda. It's why as complements of the verb need the passive infinitive and active gerund-participle clauses can mean the same thing. Nov 24, 2016 at 19:43
  • 3
    @Araucaria My first suspicion is need, which is a semi-modal (and semi-negative as well, in that use of need implies lack by implicature). I'm prepared to believe practically any kind of irregular patterning from TAM predicates like that. My second is dialectal variation -- %The carrots need chopped is not ungrammatical in some lects, and used to be far more prevalent in others, rather like %The bridge is building. My third is idiom formation, along the lines of remain to be seen, which also requires downstairs passives. Nov 24, 2016 at 20:02
  • 2
    @HotLicks: I disagree. It's meaningful (and not unusual) to say that a given utterance is ungrammatical with a given meaning, without worrying about whether the same utterance could be grammatical with a different meaning. For example, it's normal to say that *"I is home" is ungrammatical with the obviously-intended meaning, even though it becomes grammatical if "I" is someone's name. (But you're right that an utterance can be grammatical with a certain meaning if that meaning is completely nonsensical.)
    – ruakh
    Nov 25, 2016 at 23:56

4 Answers 4


The simple answer to your second question is that sentence 1 includes the verb "to be" and sentence 2 doesn't.

Regarding your first question:

  1. "The carrots need to be chopped (up)." Based on context, this construction can be interpreted as (1) an implied command -- i.e., the need is (for somebody) to chop the carrots; Or, because "to be" is involved, it can mean (2) the need is for the state of being of the carrots to be changed, i.e., from being whole to being chopped. The grammar goes like this: Words that describe a state of being are adjectives and, in English, the adjectival form of the verb is the past participle. The past participle of "to chop" is "chopped."

  2. "The carrots need chopping" can have two meanings: the direct meaning (1) the already harvested carrots need to be chopped up, (with the implied command for somebody to do the chopping). Or, it can have an idiomatic meaning (2) The carrots are not yet ready to harvest, there are weeds growing in amongst them, and those weeds need to be removed by chopping them up with a hoe or mattock. (This idiomatic expression simply identifies the crop that needs weeding and assumes you know that in this context "chopping" means "chopping the weeds out of.") Grammatically,"to need" is a transitive verb; a transitive verb takes a direct object. A direct object answers the question "What?" and must therefore be a noun or noun equivalent. Here, the direct object is "chopping" (answers the question, "What do the carrots need?") and, in English, the noun form of a verb is the gerund. The gerund form of "to chop" is "chopping."

As for sentence 3, although it is grammatically correct, it is nonsense. If you understand the concept of "carrot" then you understand that its needs, assuming it has any, do not include the need to chop.

Sentence 4 is just plain ungrammatical. In English, the verb "to need" is transitive, and transitive verbs take a direct object, i.e., the infinitive form of a verb, or a noun or noun equivalent that answers the question "What?" And if you think about it, the infinitive form of a verb is its "proper name." When a verb is referred to as a verb, one typically refers to it in the infinitive form. e.g., The verb "to be" is an irregular verb.


Though now a days the semi-modal (Quasi-modal) use of 'Need' has fallen out of favour, it still smacks at times of its modal nature : The expression of subjective attitude and opinion for possibility, necessity or contingency. So, we may well argue that we use main verb 'Need' as an alternative to semi-modal 'Need' exclusively used in negative sentences and formal English.

  • I need your help. (my own impulse)

  • The carrots need chopping. (someone else's impulse; the carrots don't wish so)

Both these examples use 'need' as main verb but in the latter carrots are the passive recipient of someone's necessities (here 'need' imbibes its modal/ semi-modal nature)

Cambridge.org says we must use the main verb "Need" when it is followed by a noun phrase or -ing clause (the naming of a state , no direct activity involved of the subject) as shown in the above examples.

Again, the main verb "Need" is followed by 'to' when used with another verb.

  • I need to have my hair cut.

It is a prompting where I may not be the doer necessitating passive form of the infinitive used. Once we accept example (1) in the post, example no. (3) is struck off by the same logic because carrots don't desire to chop themselves.

We have already said as a main verb 'need' requires gerundial form or a noun phrase. What remains to be seen as to why we must also discard example no.(4).

A Participle phrase that is not absolute always refers to the subject in the main clause. In the absence of any such reference such participle phrases are meaningless. Let us attempt to put the carrots to a reasonable use:

  • Being chopped the carrots need to be washed. Isn't it!

The claim made in the post "need" makes use of active gerund- participal clause, is not well founded. It is as passive as is the overt passive infinitival clause in the first example.

  • To be chopped

  • Chopping by somebody.

In both the examples no.(1) & (2) the modal nature of NEED, call it semi-modal if you so like, comes to the fore (just an external necessity to which carrots are dumb spectators).

  • 2
    I haven't even a hunch what "Quasi-modal" means. Perhaps I'll check with our mother and get back to you.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 1, 2016 at 19:29
  • @ Hot Licks seriously, need you check that? You need not. Dec 1, 2016 at 19:39
  • 1
    Who said anything about being serious. Does it ring a bell?
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 1, 2016 at 19:43
  • 1
    That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 2, 2016 at 0:31
  • I must go back on my words— a slow coach that I am. Thank you, Hot Licks. I knew you're not serious. Dec 2, 2016 at 3:10

In (2), it is regarded as grammatical because it is not at that point anymore, where it is just regarded as slang (like contractions). (3) implies that the carrots are the ones doing the chopping. For example, if I said, "You need to chop the carrots," it means you are the one who needs to chop [the carrots]. If I say, "The carrots need to chop" (3), it implies that the carrots are the ones which need to chop. (4) just sounds weird, and people don't want to say it in general, as it requires people to stop a moment and think, and it might be misunderstood at first glance.

  • Does 'Your last house needs to sell before you think of buying a new one' 'imply that the last house is the one trying to do the selling'? The ergative transformation is quite often available, so why not here? Oct 5, 2017 at 14:16

'Needs to' connects the previous term with the next, so 'a needs to chop b' has a chopping b, whereas 'need(s)' connects the next term to the one after that, as in 'a needs b to chop c' where b chops c.

As for your carrot examples:


"The carrots needs to be chopped." - The carrots would be a, and chopped would be b in the previous sentence structure. This is slightly modified however, b instead of being a noun, is a verb, signaled by the be before it.

"The carrots needs chopping." - In this case, need relates chopping and carrots since chopping has no other words behind it.

Not working:

"The carrots needs to chop." - This obviously wouldn't work because it is a fragment, the carrots needs to chop what exactly?

"The carrots needs being chopped." - as in the example (second model) I gave, where a needs b chops c, this makes the carrots wanting being, which is not a noun, to be chopped, which does not make sense.

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