This Needs Clarification
January 26, 2011 12:17 AM   Subscribe

Grammarfilter: In the Pittsburghese construct needs + past participle (e.g., the car needs washed), what is the name of the "to be" that is dropped?

We have verb + something + past participle. Previous discussion of the topic has a lot of interesting information, but the included links do not cover the name of the excised "to be." Just some late night burning curiosity.
posted by bfranklin to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's the infinitival form of the auxiliary.
posted by lollusc at 12:19 AM on January 26, 2011

PDF with more clarification than you need, namely "Psych verbs and verbal passives in Pittsburghese" by Carol Tenny.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:25 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, Barbara Johnstone is a Carnegie Mellon rhetoric prof who's done a ton of work on Pittsburghese; this link collects some of her papers.

Her contact info is on that site, should you really need to appeal to authority. CMU profs, when I worked there some years ago, were usually quite amused by and open to queries from the public about their topics of interest.

Sometimes I miss Pittsburgh.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:29 AM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, I assume you either know this or don't care, but just in case: this construction is by no way limited to Pittsburgh. It's common in numerous dialects in the UK, as well as some sociolects in New Zealand English. Presumably elsewhere too.
posted by lollusc at 3:23 AM on January 26, 2011

It is a copula.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 5:45 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

"To be" is just a verb. In those constructs, "[object] needs to be [verbed]", using "to be" changes it into a passive by making "be" the action being done, and the regular verb describes what is being done. (Same thing in my last sentence- being is the verb, done is how.)

The simplest form of the communication is:

"Wash the car."
[Verb] the [object].

But we don't want to be going around giving commands to people, so we want to make it a little more passive. YOU don't have to wash the car, and *I* am not the one telling you TO wash it. The car itself, by being dirty, is begging to be washed. And I am describing a condition that, in the future, will have been done.

"The car needs." Needs what? "Washing." (present) or "To be washed." (future)

(In that construction, the whole "to be washed" is an infinite phrase describing in what manner the car "needs".)

"To be" is a very complicated verb. Especially because English doesn't really have a real future tense, as far as verb conjugations go. We just go around describing things in the present or past tenses, and modifying them with "to be" to sound like we are speaking from the future. If we had a future tense, all our verbs would have a third way to be conjugated besides -ing and -ed.

The dropping "to be" like this is indeed not confined to Pittsburgh. It is on the upswing (as far as I have seen) amongst speakers who identify with "the country" or "the heartland"
posted by gjc at 5:50 AM on January 26, 2011

My sister (who went to the same college I did, north of Pittsburgh, although we're from California) once quipped that "the crux of Shakespeare in Pittsburgh would be 'or not.'"

N'thing gjc that it is simply a verb. Take any other language you learn, when you get to verbs, you almost always learn them in the "to ___" form and then after you know the verb you can start learning the conjugations. Take Spanish, for example:

Querer: to want
Haber: to speak
Estar: to be
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:58 AM on January 26, 2011

Construct also common in northern Indiana/southwestern Michigan, as evidenced by my wife's tendency to tell me that things "need washed" or (when I tease her for saying it that way) that I "need smacked".
posted by caution live frogs at 7:26 AM on January 26, 2011

I think we can agree that needs VERBed is an English regionalism, albeit a widespread one. Anyone trying to explain it using grade-school grammar will likely realize the limitations of their syntactic terminology.

Since the construction seems to be limited to the verb need and want, as in "the baby wants picked up" (JSTOR link), I've only seen it referred to as "need with past participle" or "want with past participle." It's not a construction that generalizes to a larger set of verbs, so it doesn't really demand a more general name.
posted by Nomyte at 7:26 AM on January 26, 2011

It's the infinitive.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:22 AM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: Googling on infinitival auxiliary yields this page that pretty clearly has lollusc as the win.
posted by bfranklin at 9:59 AM on January 26, 2011

I disagree; the page you linked to states that the infinitival auxiliary is the word "to," which when connected with any verb forms the infinitive. That section is discussing the relationship between tenseless verbs and the use of the infinitive, which has nothing to do with the grammatical feature you're talking about.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 10:51 AM on January 26, 2011

Now, what lollusc says is that it's the infinitival form of the auxiliary, which is true in that "to be" is an infinitive and "to be" is often used as an auxiliary verb ("She is walking," "He was going to go to the store"). But I disagree that "to be" is an auxiliary verb in this particular case; my understanding is that the auxiliary verb is the first in a sequence of verbs, not the second (unless the second is followed by a third, as in the second example I gave).

It's been a while since I've taken a syntax course, so hopefully someone else can settle this, or lollusc can come back and school me.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 11:06 AM on January 26, 2011

Okay! I've thought about this some more!

It seems to me that "need," when used as an auxiliary verb (as opposed to a regular transitive verb, as in "I need five dollars"), requires the following verb to be in the infinitive form, regardless of what that verb is. Thus:

I need to sleep.
The cat needs to eat.
The car needs to idlea while before going.

In this respect, "need" is like "has" or "ought" or other auxiliary verbs:

He ought to smile more.
A responsible citizen has to vote.

In the case of "the car needs to be washed," the verb phrase being modified by "needs" is in the passive voice. In English, the passive voice is typically formed by joining the copula ("to be") with the past participle of the verb being done to the subject. Like so:

The chicken was eaten.
The ceiling is painted.

So when you combine the auxiliary verb "needs," which takes an infinitival verb, with a passive construction, you're turning the copula in the passive construction into the infinitive form, "to be."

I'm not familiar enough with Pittsburghese to know whether they'd also drop the infinitival "to" in non-passive constructions, e.g.:

?The car needs idle a while before going.

But I suspect that Pittsburghese speakers wouldn't say something like that, because all the discussions I've seen of that dialect focus on "needs" followed by a past participle.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 11:41 AM on January 26, 2011

In other words (and after this I'll stop posting), I now think lollusc is right that it's an infinitival form of AN auxiliary verb, because "to be" is acting as an auxiliary verb in the passive construction "to be Xed" -- but I still think that label is too vague to pin down the interesting things going on in this situation.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 11:48 AM on January 26, 2011

I dislike the appeal to authority in principle, but in practice I'm going to use it: I teach this stuff for a living.

It really is an auxiliary. An auxiliary is the verb "be" "have" etc that doesn't carry the main semantics of the verb in the verbal complex. I.e. in "needs to be washed", both "need" and "wash" contribute semantically to the sentence such that removing either would change the meaning of the whole clause dramatically. "be" does not. It is there for grammatical reasons. A short list of other verbs that are semi-grammatical and semi-meaningful are referred to as "modals" and these include "must", "should", "can", etc. But these have special properties. "be" is not one of those. (Although you could argue that in some dialects, "need" is.)

An auxiliary by no means has to be the first verb in the clause. Look at the following:

"I am going."
"I will be going."
"I might have needed to be going."

In each case, the "be" (in the first clause the form is "am" but it's still the same verb) is performing exactly the same function.

"I have been eating the cake" has two auxiliaries directly following each other.

Infinitive just means it's the untensed form of the verb. Infinitives are sometimes marked by a "to" in English, but they don't have to be. But only one verb in an English clause is marked for number and person agreement - all the others are going to be either infinitives or participles.
posted by lollusc at 6:52 PM on January 26, 2011

(That's not to say that any time "be" doesn't contribute semantically it is an auxiliary. In some constructions "be" is used as a copula: "I am a teacher" - here it also doesn't contribute semantically; it just links the two noun phrases. In some languages you would not have a verb in that sentence at all. A semantically empty be has to be combined with another verb for it to function as an auxiliary.)
posted by lollusc at 6:56 PM on January 26, 2011

lollusc -- if you read my followup, you'll see that I came around to your claim that it was an auxiliary verb, but I also tried to provide a more precise description of what "to be" is doing in this specific kind of construction. Was my syntactic analysis incorrect?
posted by enlarged to show texture at 7:28 PM on January 26, 2011

You are right in some ways, but with some other errors in there:

"to be" is not a copula in this case. If you read my follow-up, you'll see that a copula connects two noun phrases. It's the linguistic equivalent of an equals sign :)

It is still an auxiliary. But you are right about "needs to be washed" being passive, and that an active "needs" construction does not get reduced in the same way.

"ought" is not an auxiliary: it is a weird sort of modal for most speakers. (The differences between modals and auxiliaries are mainly down to inflection. Modals don't inflect with an -s in the third person singular present. So we have "he goes - I go" but "he can - I can". Ought is like this for historical reasons (it used to be the past tense and kind of got fossilized).
posted by lollusc at 7:58 PM on January 26, 2011

Gah, sorry, my imprecision is annoying me. The "It" in "it is still an auxiliary" refers to the "to be" not to a copula.

And let me rephrase this sentence: "But you are right about "needs to be washed" being passive, and that an active "needs" construction does not get reduced in the same way."

"needs to be washed" is not passive; "to be washed" is passive. To put the whole sentence into the passive voice you'd have to have something like, *"The car is needed to be washed." (which is ungrammatical.) The difference between "The car needs to be washed" and *"The car needs to idle" is the passive/active voice of the wash/idle component, not of the whole thing.

The whole thing is complicated a little bit by the fact that "needs" is a "control verb". If you want to spend hours of fun thinking more about this construction, you should probably start by googling "control verbs" and reading about those.
posted by lollusc at 8:22 PM on January 26, 2011

Oh, and a copula can also connect a noun phrase to an adjective phrase (he is happy).

I'm done now. This is getting too far removed from the asker's original question.
posted by lollusc at 8:26 PM on January 26, 2011

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