Whenever I give radio interviews, especially when the station is in the Midwest, callers almost always ask questions like this one from Douglas:
The other day I heard a co-worker say, “My car needs washed.” I THINK she should have said, “My car needs to be washed” or “I need to get my car washed” or perhaps even “My car needs washing.” What do you think?
I think Douglas’ co-worker almost certainly grew up in a place linguists call the North Midland region or, perhaps, has parents from that region. Pittsburgh is the epicenter of “needs washed” kind of sentences, but they’re also very common throughout Pennsylvania, and roughly as far west as Iowa, as far North as southern Michigan, and as far south as northern West Virginia.
“Needs Washed” Map
I asked my Facebook followers if they had ever heard it and got nearly 600 responses.
You’ll see that although it’s concentrated in the areas I just mentioned, it’s certainly not limited to them. For example, I was surprised by the number of people in southern Oregon and southern Idaho who reported hearing “needs washed” kind of sentences.
It’s not limited to the word “needs” either. People in those regions may also form sentences this way with the verb “likes” or “wants.” For example, “The dog wants walked,” and “The dog likes petted,” instead of “The dog wants to be walked,” and “The dog likes to be petted.”
Infinitival Copula Deletion
For those of you who are curious or want to do your own research, professor Barbara Johnstone, who studies Pittsburghese at Carnegie Mellon, calls the phenomenon “infinitival copula deletion.” “To be” is a copula, also known as a linking verb, in its infinitive form.
Blame the Scots-Irish
But let’s get to the fun part! Why do people talk like that? Where does it come from? As with many regional dialects, it has to do with migration patterns.
The “needs washed” construction is common in Scotland and Northern Ireland according to both linguists and a few Scottish and Irish respondents to my question, and when southwestern Pennsylvania was first settled by Europeans in the late 1600s and early 1700s, most of the settlers were Scots-Irish, a group of people with Scottish heritage who had settled for a few generations in the Ulster region of Northern Ireland. Not surprisingly, they brought their language—or what we might call quirks—with them.
As to why the Scots-Irish so long ago said their horses “need washed,” I haven’t been able to find a source that says why, and that’s unfortunately common when you’re investigating dialects. Eventually, you get to a point where all you can find is “the earlier people or the people who populated the region spoke that way.”
Other Quirks of Pittsburghese
According to the Pittsburgh Speech and Society page at University of Pittsburgh, other phrases that are considered Pittsburghese that came from the Scots-Irish immigrants are “redd up” (to mean “clean up”), “diamond” (to mean “town square”), “slippy” (for “slippery”), and “yinz” as a plural for “you,” like “you guys” or “y’all.”
Also, using “anymore” in positive sentences, like people outside the region would use “nowadays,” is a feature of the North Midland region that may have come from the Scots-Irish. For example, to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and surrounding states, something like “Anymore there’s a Starbucks on every corner,” may sound completely normal.
Is “Needs Washed” Wrong?
And my choice of the word “normal” in that last sentence raises a tricky question. Is it wrong to use the “needs washed” construction? What does it actually mean for a dialect to be right or wrong?
What I found amazing from both my research and the responses people wrote to my Facebook question was that some people (outside the North Midland region) have never heard the “needs washed” construction and are horrified that it exists, but there are also people who have lived in the North Midland region their whole lives and didn’t realize there are people who don’t say “The car needs washed.” It’s so common in their area, they have no idea it’s considered wrong in other cities.
Standard in Some Parts of the North Midland Region
I’ve heard of teachers using it. For example, in a 2007 Boston Globe article, Jan Freeman told a story about a family who moved to Pittsburgh and was shocked when their son’s teacher sent home a note saying “the kids’ homework needs reviewed by parents.” Two of my Facebook friends said they regularly hear “needs washed” kind of sentences in business settings, and Cheryl from Williams County, Ohio, said she heard the clerk of the court ask, “Does this need signed by the judge?” Even a copy editor friend who lives in central Illinois and considers herself picky when it comes to language said it sounds perfectly normal to her. I think it’s reasonable to say that, at least in certain communities in the North Midland region, the “needs washed” construction is standard. Nobody who grew up there notices it as odd or thinks it’s wrong.
Wrong Everywhere Else
Nevertheless, outside that region, almost everyone considers it wrong; and people who move to the North Midland region from other areas will likely think everyone else there is speaking “bad” English. The radio callers I hear from are often people who have moved to Ohio, for example.
The major usage guides I checked all agree that it’s not normal. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage calls it a “curious construction” and notes that The Longman Dictionary of English Language calls it “widely disliked,” and the Dictionary of American Regional English calls in an idiom. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English calls it dialect and nonstandard.
The Cover-Letter Test
Ask yourself if it would be safe to use this kind of sentence in a cover letter.
The bottom line is that whether it’s considered wrong depends on who’s listening. When I have to make a decision about something like this, I use what I call the cover-letter test. Would I feel comfortable telling people to use this type of sentence in a cover letter when they are applying for a job?
If you don’t live in the North Midland region, it’s easy: this construction is wrong.
If you live in a North Midland state, however, it’s not so simple. You might be able to get away with using the “needs washed” construction if you are applying for a job with a local company. On the other hand, your letter could still be reviewed by someone who moved to town from another region, and if you’re applying for a job with a national or international company, people are sure to think you’re not speaking proper English.
Even though everyone you know may well consider the “needs washed” construction perfectly fine, I still have to advise you not to use it.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments on this topic.
Mignon Fogarty is the author of Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students.
Further Reading and Viewing
View all the responses to my “needs washed” question on Facebook (and add your own response if you’d like)
“You Want Punched Out” from the Language Log Website (includes a nice map)
“Louisana Vowels” from the Language Log Website
Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: Needs Washed (includes a nice map)
“History” from the Pittsburgh Speech and Society page at University of Pittsburgh
“Special Needs” on the Literal Minded blog
“You Say Soda, I Say Pop: A Midwestern Observation of Language” Macmillan Dictionary Blog
“Lawn Needs Cut” in the Boston Globe
“Steel Town Speak” from PBS
Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar by Terence Odlin
“Wants + Past Participle in American English” from American Speech (subscription required for full access)
“Need + Past Participle in American English” in American Speech (subscription required for full access)
A version of this article originally ran March 10, 2016.