A recent tweet from Senator Chuck Schumer (quoted for linguistic purposes only) says

Trump needs to sign the bill to help people and keep the government open and we're glad to pass more aid Americans need

In this sentence, "needs" seems to be used in the sense of obligation or necessity and not personal need; Schumer is not saying that Trump's interests require that he sign the bill, he's saying that this is something necessary to do, that Trump should do it.

My question is: is this a relatively new meaning of the transitive verb "to need"? I seem to perceive it as recent and markedly conversational; is this intuition correct? (I'm not a native speaker).

For example, imagine a policeman saying to someone who's agitating and panicking: "Sir, you need to calm down NOW". This feels to me like a phrase that could be said within the last 30-40 years, say, but not in 1920.

I'm aware that "need" as a modal verb carries the meaning of impersonal obligation ("you need not do X"), but I'm asking specifically about the transitive verb.

To provide partial support, I see that the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition (1994) defines the transitive sense of "need" only as "To have need of; require", whereas the current online AHD, 5th edition adds a meaning "2. To have an obligation (to do something): You need to clean up your room.", which pinpoints exactly the meaning I'm referring to. Is this an omission in the 1994 edition or a real indication that this meaning is relatively new?

  • 1
    "Need" is a transitive verb only when it has an NP object as in "He needs a new car", but elsewhere it's intransitive.
    – BillJ
    Dec 25, 2020 at 11:12
  • I have noticed that many people seem to think they "need" things, as if their life will end if they do not have them. I believe this is a good example of language modifying psychology. Experimentally, when you press subjects who use the word "need" this way, they will often resist, until - sometimes - they will finally acknowledge that they don't really need what they think they need. When speaking English, I try to use the word need mindfully, and limit my use to when I do truly need something. Human needs consist largely of air, food, water, and sometimes shelter. Dec 25, 2020 at 17:59

1 Answer 1


This acception of "need", "To have an obligation (to do something)", is found in the SOED.

6 v;t. Be under a necessity or obligation to do (now esp. in positive and declarative contexts), do (now esp. in positive or interrogative contexts). Also, be recommended or desirable to do. Late Middle English¹

As Late Middle English covers exactly the period from 1350 to 1469, this acceptation of the verb has been in the language for a very long time .

¹ indicates the period of first recorded use; when not followed by another period this indication carries also the information that the meaning is still valid in 2000; if a second (ulterior) period follows, then that period is that of last recorded use.

  • Did you mean to include a date someplace? The note seems to be orphaned.
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 25, 2020 at 15:46
  • @PhilSweet This dictionary does not indicate dates but only periods, which in the early days of the English language correspond to names chosen because of unifying characteristics in the language, and from 1470 regular divisions of each century, 30|40|30, corresponding to "Early xxth century", "Middle xxth century", and "Late xxth century". As the edition of the dictionary is 1993 it covers almost the late 20th century period (1970-2000).
    – LPH
    Dec 25, 2020 at 16:04

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