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My question is about the regional acceptability of sentences such as the following:

  • You need your eyes testing.
  • I need my hair cutting.
  • I want my car washing.

The second example is given in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p. 1231), without any mention of geographic restrictions. This type of construction is also discussed on Language Log.

It is clear that for many Britons these kinds of sentences are perfectly normal, though in the cases I've encountered, the speakers have been from northern England.

At the same time, it is just as clear that the construction is unacceptable to most North Americans, myself included. We would instead say: "You need your eyes tested," or possibly "Your eyes need testing." In fact, I was surprised at first that people anywhere could say this kind of thing.

My main question is what the degree of acceptability is of this construction in:

  1. the spoken English of southern England; and
  2. formal written British English.

I ask the latter question because one would expect that a construction occurring with any frequency in British writing would be at least somewhat familiar to educated North Americans, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Examples taken from well-edited, older prose by a variety of British writers would best answer this part of the question.

Though this is not central to my question, I would also be curious to hear views on this construction from English-speakers in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, or on spoken Scottish usage. I do not want or need confirmation from North Americans that it is unacceptable to them, or from Northerners that it occurs in their speech.

  • Somehow, as an AmE speaker, listening to BrE all the time, I would go for: Your eyes will need testing, then." – Lambie Feb 2 at 13:03
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    The hair cutting example is a little better than the others, provided "hair cutting" is taken as an event (i.e. a noun phrase), as opposed to some kind of verb phrase etc. – Lawrence Feb 2 at 13:46
  • @Lawrence Could you please say what variety of English you are referring to? (If it's British, please specify the region and whether it's written or spoken.) – Dave Feb 2 at 14:00
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    @tchrist A northern English informant (who habitually uses the construction my question is about) tells me that "my car needs washed" is not used in their area, but that it strikes them as being typically Scottish. I also know that it is used in western Pennsylvania. – Dave Feb 2 at 14:36
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    I suspect a lot of BrE speakers(southern or northern regardless) will have a hard time deciphering what the question you're actually asking is (as in the LL link) the constructions seem so natural when they're right, that people will infer another problem or meaning. I suggest making use of Liberman's "X needs Y V-ing" to clarify, in search of a good answer. In the meantime "Such constructions, in the view of this (person brought up in the 'south') respondent are perfectly acceptable English." – Giu Piete Mar 4 at 17:34
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I can't speak to your main questions, but as an English-speaker from the Republic of Ireland, I can say that whilst I'm aware of the construction, I would find it unacceptable in speech, and doubly so in writing.

I believe I first encountered the construction in Thud! by Terry Pratchett. Whilst the quote doesn't meet your criteria for examples of the phrase in literature, I find it amusing enough that I couldn't resist including it anyway:

Brushing aside cobwebs with one hand and holding up a lantern with the other, Sybil led the way past boxes of MEN’S BOOTS, VARIOUS; RISIBLE PUPPETS, STRING & GLOVE; MODEL THEATER AND SCENERY. Maybe that was the reason for their wealth: they had bought things that were built to last, and now they seldom had to buy anything at all. Except food, of course, and even then Vimes would not have been surprised to see boxes labeled APPLE CORES, VARIOUS, or LEFTOVERS, NEED EATING UP.*

**That was a phrase of Sybil’s that got to him. She’d announce at lunch, “we must have the pork tonight, it needs eating up.” Vimes never had an actual problem with this, because he’d been raised to eat what was put in front of him, and do it quickly, too, before someone else snatched it away. He was just puzzled at the suggestion that he was there to do the food a favour.

I'm not sure if these characters are styled after people from any particular region of England; perhaps someone more familiar with the various dialects would be able to help you with that.

  • But! Pratchett is making jokes by deliberately misconstruing common language, that's his entire M.O! And you made me feel bad for wanting to +1 an answer that makes me smile, so..boo =) – Giu Piete Mar 8 at 21:08
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Native speaker here, Australian English for my childhood, then (Southern) British English all my adult life.

All three sound wrong to me. Clearly understood, but would definitely mark the speaker's dialect as Other. Certainly they are not formally correct, but probably are perfectly acceptable in various dialects.

I can imagine my (Welsh) MIL exclaiming "You want your hair cutting!". I wouldn't swear to it, but I suspect this formation is acceptable in Welsh English. (It's not infrequent to find phrasing commonalities between Welsh and Northern dialects, to be fair).

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Not british or native English speaker then But I travelled a lot and learnt English at school and in South Africa. At school, these 3 sentences would be marked wrong, and the teacher would correct it with the use of 'ed' instead of 'ing'

You need your eyes tested. I need my hair cut. I want my car washed.

The same thing apply in South Africa I believe. However, I always noted many 'mistakes', such as the use of 'there is' when it really should be 'there are', and I am impressed by how malleable the English language is. So I wouldn't be surprise to hear that, as long as everybody understand, I guess that it's fine, for English Speakers.

Same rules doesn't apply in French, don't try it!

  • The same thing apply in South Africa? I wouldn't be surprise? – Lambie Mar 8 at 17:30
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Those sentences are OK.

To develop the question: these 3 are OK:

You need your eyes testing.

You need your eyes tested.

Your eyes need testing.

The following one is found in some regional dialects but is not widely accepted:

?Your eyes need tested.

I live in southern England, and my English follows southern rather than northern forms where there's a difference.

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