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Needs Washed

Have you ever visited a relative or met someone who said their car "needs washed" instead of their car "needs TO BE washed"? Here's why.

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #507

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.

Next: Is Needs Washed Wrong?

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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