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Using -ed vs. -ing in the “needs washed” construction

"The car needs washed."

I can understand what the speaker means to say, but this is strange to me.

My question: If this sentence claims there is no ellipsis, and that it is perfectly acceptable, how to understand the grammar? Or is it some kind of usage?


This is a dialectal construction common in many places in the U.S. There's quite a bit of linguistic literature on it, summarized in this Language Log post.

Since need is a semi-modal in Negative Polarity environments, and therefore quite irregular, like all NPIs and all modal auxiliaries, it's predictable that it will participate in idioms and variant constructions like this, and that there will be a lot of idiolectal and dialectal variations on its use.

The phrase This car needs washed itself is a self-verifying joke, commonly scrawled with a finger in the dust on a car's back window, if there's enough dust on it to do so.

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    I believe it's also found in Scotland. – Barrie England May 20 '12 at 18:11
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    Undoubtedly it is. It's just a different participial use, and they fluctuate all over the map; we used to say The bridge is building, but now we say The bridge is being built. – John Lawler May 20 '12 at 18:14

The sentence is not correct, even though it is understandable. One of the great advantages of English is that it can often be understood even when grammatically incorrect.

It should be "The car needs to be washed" or (slightly less formally) "The car needs washing".

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    Those are both common ways to say it, but the sentence itself is not "incorrect", just a different dialect. – John Lawler May 20 '12 at 18:15
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    This answer is wrong. -1. – RegDwigнt May 20 '12 at 21:50

Possibly more Shakespearean than incorrect.

The word pair 'Must needs' enjoyed popularity in the 1600's, including in the works of Shakespeare. Bits of the Bard are still leaking into the language today.

On the other hand, Needs Washed is a well known regionalism, centered around Pittsburgh. Perhaps Pennsylvanians read a lot of 17th century literature?

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    Looks like Penns have some Irish/Scottish connection rather. – Kris May 20 '12 at 18:24

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