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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

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.

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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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