This Needs Answered
February 21, 2008 9:08 AM   Subscribe

I went to school near Pittsburgh and now live in Ohio. Both at school and here in Columbus, I notice people leaving off "to be" in sentences. This needs fixed, that neads cleaned, those need washed. What's the deal here?

This sounds just terrible to my ears but I can't explain exactly what is grammatically incorrect about it. How can I explain, gramatically, what is wrong with this construction? Also, where did this originate?
posted by lohmannn to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
My friend in Philly does this too. I think it's just a colloquialism, but I have no idea where it originated.
posted by bedhead at 9:14 AM on February 21, 2008


It's strange that bedhead has a friend in Philadelphia who does it. From my understanding of it, it's more of a Eastern PA thing rather than an all of Pennsylvania thing. I grew up in Northwest PA and I do it constantly. I honestly didn't even know it was wrong until I went to Penn State and had a roommate who from Philadelphia who stopped dead in her tracks once and said, "Wait. What did you just say?" It was completely normal where I grew up, and when I lived in Pittsburgh for awhile. I also found that people from closer to Philadelphia would leave out the word "with." So it would be "I'm done class" or "I'm done my book."

It's just one of those regional oddities, I suppose.
posted by plaingurl at 9:19 AM on February 21, 2008


It's a construction borrowed from Scots Gaelic and common in areas where lots of Scottish and Irish people emigrated.
posted by Justinian at 9:20 AM on February 21, 2008


Wikipedia on Scottish English.

Yeah, it's wikipedia but a quick google search on "needs washed" and gaelic will show you plenty of links including those to linguist mailing lists.
posted by Justinian at 9:21 AM on February 21, 2008


Well, technically, they just need to change the tense: "That needs fixing."

There are a lot of Eastern Pennsylvanians in Columbus thanks to OSU, so maybe you're hearing a bunch of them. When I was there, I had fun trying to figure out where people were from based on their regional accents and idioms. (Have you heard any Cincinnatans say "Please?" when they want you to repeat what you just said? I love that one.)
posted by me3dia at 9:23 AM on February 21, 2008


I've always found that it's pretty standard Central PA and Western PA dialect. The town of Altoona in PA was where I first encountered it. My sister's college roommate said "My hair needs warshed" and my sister and I both looked at each other, wondering what a warshed was and where we could find one. You may be surprised by how often "needs washed" pops up in a google search.

(Have you heard any Cincinnatans say "Please?" when they want you to repeat what you just said? I love that one.)

A co-worker is from there, and says "Please repeat?" when she misses something. I didn't know it was a Cincinnati thing...huh.
posted by iconomy at 9:26 AM on February 21, 2008


So it would be "I'm done class" or "I'm done my book."

Wait, wha? This is incorrect by anyone's definition?

"I'm done eating"... you wouldn't say "I'm done with eating" unless you were giving up eating altogether. "I'm done class" is being done that one class whereas "I'm done with class" gives it that sense of being finished with classes in general.

It's not the same at all.
posted by GuyZero at 9:29 AM on February 21, 2008


A co-worker is from there, and says "Please repeat?" when she misses something. I didn't know it was a Cincinnati thing...huh.
Yep. And the "repeat" is for your benefit, so you don't stare at her blankly.
posted by me3dia at 9:31 AM on February 21, 2008


It's primarily a Pittsburgh (and, by extension, Central and Western PA) thing. It's not an Ohio thing, except perhaps near the border, so I suspect you're hearing Pennsylvanians around Columbus. Having heard it a lot in the Burgh, you might be extra-sensitized to it... (I'm speaking as someone from Cleveland, here: I never used that construction, and never heard it used by other Clevelanders, but my friends from Pittsburgh all use it, and yeah, it really does grate to hear that something "needs washed".)
posted by ubersturm at 9:37 AM on February 21, 2008


This was standard for the years I spent in Pittsburgh and (according to my sisters who live there) still is part of the dialect. "Dog needs walked", "dishes need warshed", etc. For more on Pittsburghese, see here.

Here is some more information from Wikipedia on that specific construct:

* ike, need, or want + past participle (Murray, Frazer and Simon 1996; Tenny 1998; McElhinny 1999; Murray and Simon 1999; Montgomery 2001; Johnstone, Bhasin and Wittkofski 2002; Murray and Simon 2002; Wisnosky 2003; Johnstone and Baumgardt 2004; Johnstone, Andrus and Danielson 2006).

Examples: “Babies like cuddled”; “The car needs washed”; “The cat wants petted.”

Further explanation: More common constructions are “Babies like cuddling” or “Babies like to be cuddled”; “”The car needs washing” or “The car needs to be washed”; and “The cat wants petting” or “The cat wants to be petted.”

Geographic distribution: Found predominantly in the North Midland region, but especially in southwestern Pennsylvania (Murray, Frazer and Simon 1996; Murray and Simon 1999; Murray and Simon 2002). Need + past participle is the most common construction, followed by want + past participle, and then like + past participle. The forms are "implicationally related" to one another (Murray and Simon 2002). This means the existence of one construction in a given location entails the existence (or not) of another in that location. Here’s the implicational breakdown: where we find like + past participle, we will also necessarily find want and need + past participle; where we find want + past participle, we will also find need + past participle, but we may or may not find like + past participle; where we find need + past participle, we may or may not find want + past participle and like + past participle. Put another way, the existence of the least common construction implies the necessary existence of the two more common constructions, but the existence of the most common construction does not necessarily entail existence of the two less common constructions.

Origins: like + past participle is Scots-Irish (Murray and Simon 2002). need + past participle is Scots-Irish (Murray, Frazer, and Simon 1996; Murray and Simon 1999; Montgomery 2001; Murray and Simon 2002). While Adams (2002) argues that want + past participle could be from Scots-Irish or German, it seems likely that this construction is Scots-Irish, as Murray and Simon (1999 and 2002) claim. like and need + past participle are Scots-Irish, the distributions of all three constructions are implicationally related, the area where they are predominantly found is most heavily influenced by Scots-Irish, and a related construction, want + directional adverb, as in “The cat wants out,” is Scots-Irish (Crozier 1984).

posted by jeanmari at 9:40 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


My old roommate, who was Cleveland born and bred, said "needs washed" - was the first and only time this native Californian had heard that particular construction!

She also pronounced tacos TAY-cos, but that's another tangent.
posted by chez shoes at 9:45 AM on February 21, 2008


Wow I'm glad you asked this, I have come very close to asking this myself in the past. My wife and a friend are both from Indiana and they both say this - it tends to bother me much more than it should, for some reason.

"The cat needs brushed"..

NO, the cat NEEDS TO BE BRUSHED, damnit!

Odd though that while this seems to stretch from PA to IN, I never heard anyone say this when I lived in Chicago. I suppose they have their own colloquialisms to worry about. :-)

(And on a side note, my uncle who lives just outside of Seattle claims to live in "Warshington".)
posted by MarkLark at 10:10 AM on February 21, 2008


"I'm done eating"... you wouldn't say "I'm done with eating" unless you were giving up eating altogether. "I'm done class" is being done that one class whereas "I'm done with class" gives it that sense of being finished with classes in general.


I disagree.

The prepositional phrase indicates the relationship between "done" and the object, which in this case is "class." It would be different if you said, "I'm done in class" or "I'm done with class," which is why it's necessary to make that relationship clear.

"I'm done eating" isn't an accurate comparison because eating is an action, and it wouldn't make sense for you to say you were something in relationship to an action.
posted by plaingurl at 10:11 AM on February 21, 2008


I grew up using this construction, but my Dad's from Western PA, so maybe that's why? I hear it in Columbus all the time, though.
posted by Liosliath at 10:14 AM on February 21, 2008


My wife is from just south of Harrisburg, PA.

She slips one of these in every once in a while.

It annoys me to no end.

I'm fairly certain she's aware of that fact. ;-)
posted by Wild_Eep at 10:16 AM on February 21, 2008


I picked up that construction growing up in rural Nebraska, and it horrified people in Minnesota when I moved up here. So it's a pretty patchy usage in the midwest.
posted by COBRA! at 10:20 AM on February 21, 2008


it's necessary to make that relationship clear.

Well, I disagree. First, I've never heard anyone ever say "done with class". Second, I'd chalk to up to omitting a verb, i.e. "I'm done [attending] class".

"done with class" simply implies an entirely different idea.
posted by GuyZero at 10:21 AM on February 21, 2008


This is great. My fiancee is from Colorado, but her parents are both from western PA and she does it, as do her sisters.

I pointed out that it was weird, and they weren't even aware of that.
posted by yesno at 10:26 AM on February 21, 2008


Ahh, great! Thank you everyone for your answers. jeanmari, I figured there was something on wikipedia about it but I couldn't find anything.

So, is it wrong? What can I tell people who say this to prove I AM RIGHT YOU ARE WRONG. Not that I would ever do that. Of course not. Never.
posted by lohmannn at 10:29 AM on February 21, 2008


Grew up in Columbus, mother and grandfather both from eastern PA area. I say it all the time, so do they, and so do most of my friends from Columbus. I haven't been able to get rid of it yet... actually I think "needs fixing" sounds more "wrong" than "needs fixed", but that's regional dialect for you. And I hear the resident Scot at work use it as well.

And like yesno's fiancee, I never saw anything wrong with it until my friends in Massachusetts started pointing it out and laughing, and I'm even a grammar nazi.
posted by olinerd at 10:31 AM on February 21, 2008


So it would be "I'm done class" or "I'm done my book."

Wait, wha? This is incorrect by anyone's definition?

"I'm done eating"... you wouldn't say "I'm done with eating" unless you were giving up eating altogether.


You do realize that "class" and "my book" are nouns while "eating" is a verb, don't you?

"I'm done learning" or "I'm done reading" (verbs) are perfectly fine. "I'm done dinner" (noun) is not.
posted by toomuchpete at 10:43 AM on February 21, 2008


...that needs cleaned...
A true Pittsburgher would say "That needs redd up."

I've lived here for 28 years and have taken on quite a few Pittsburgh-isms, including this one, but they still don't come naturally. I can't seem to say "The dogs need walked" unironically. But I appreciate those who can.

Also, if Shakespeare had been a Pittsburgher the line would be just "or not." Ha!

(Great thread, by the way.)
posted by booth at 10:51 AM on February 21, 2008


PNC Bank (headquartered in Pittsburgh) used to have training manuals where this was done...

As for "that needs cleaned", if it's referring to vacuuming, then "it needs sweeped."
posted by inigo2 at 11:01 AM on February 21, 2008


Well, I disagree. First, I've never heard anyone ever say "done with class". Second, I'd chalk to up to omitting a verb, i.e. "I'm done [attending] class".

"done with class" simply implies an entirely different idea.


I've never heard anyone say "I'm done class" (I grew up in New England). To me, "done with class" doesn't imply that you're done with all classes - to my ear, it means you've just gotten out of that one particular class. "I'm done with classes" to me means done with all classes, for ever, here comes graduation!

Regionalisms are cool. When I lived in Western MA, I heard people say "I have to be to work for four o'clock"; growing up in Boston (an hour and a half east), everybody I knew said "I have to be at work at four o'clock".
posted by rtha at 11:06 AM on February 21, 2008


First, I've never heard anyone ever say "done with class".

Then you associate solely with people of your own dialect, because in my dialect (California) it is natural and common to walk out of the classroom, call a friend and say, "I'm done with class. Want to meet for lunch?" with the idea being "done with class" = "just left this class session."

(And to mess up the geography on the original question a bit, I know someone who grew up in Dallas and would say things like "This needs warshed" all the time. Not sure if her family is from Penn....)
posted by kittyprecious at 11:08 AM on February 21, 2008


This sounds perfectly normal to my Cincinnati ears, but there's a lot of us micks here in the 'nati
posted by Mick at 11:10 AM on February 21, 2008


What can I tell people who say this to prove I AM RIGHT YOU ARE WRONG.

I'm not a linguist, but "wrong" is probably the wrong term to use here. The construction is definitely nonstandard (outside of a certain region), so if you want to scare people away from using it, then you can legitimately claim that much - and people may naturally have an interest in not offending their interlocutors' aesthetic sensibilities (witness the opprobrium manifested in this thread). Based on my experience living in Pittsburgh, it's not quite as much of a class marker as you might think - it's a regional marker, obviously, but I've been surprised at the number of professionals (lawyers and the like) who use the construction not only in speaking, but also in written work sometimes.

But, I mean, is it "wrong"? I don't know - are you an American? If so, have you ever "agreed to a contract" with someone? Is an Englishman entitled to call that wrong, since one doesn't "agree to" a contract, one simply "agrees a contract"? Or do you frequently use the word "gotten," a past participle? That word is practically unknown in British English, but is pretty common in American English. Think about these kinds of differences between dialects and communities of speakers of a language before deciding to call something "wrong" or not.

If you dig deeper into Pittsburghese and its relatives, you will find other unusual and interesting words and constructions. My favorite may be the verb "to redd up," which means to clean or tidy, or generally get something ship-shape. Redd up also has a Scotch-Irish lineage, and I was pleased to see it used by a a character in a C.S. Lewis novel (a book in the Space trilogy, written in the 1940s, I think) who was Scotch-Irish and who used the term.
posted by chinston at 11:11 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Justinian, don't think it's a gaelic borrowing. I'm from Glasgow, and I'd consider it standard usage.
posted by scruss at 11:54 AM on February 21, 2008


The top of the wikipedia article should read:

This article or section needs wikified to meet Wikipedia's quality standards.
posted by lohmannn at 12:07 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whenever I miss the Pittsburgh dialect, I call my sister to get a healthy dose of "Hey, how yunz doin?"

N'at.
posted by jeanmari at 12:24 PM on February 21, 2008


When I lived in Pittsburgh, the standard joke told to newcomers was:

If Shakespeare had lived in Pittsburgh, the beginning of Hamlet's soliloquy would be "or not".
posted by Wet Spot at 12:33 PM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


With regard to the "please" thing for Cincinnati, it comes from the heavy German heritage of the city - its a literal translation of "bitte", with the German usage carried over. Here's a reprint of a local newspaper column explaining it.

As a born & bred Cincinnatian, you don't hear it much anymore (except from west-siders ;-)
posted by dicaxpuella at 12:34 PM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Heh, I read this like "whe?" cuz that's what I say. Gotta love colloquialisms, they make our culture rich, even when our people aren't.

My gf is from outside pittsburgh---my least favorite thing is everything is a question:
"You gonna eat dat?" "You comin ova?" "Joey's ova there?" "I'm comin' downare?"I swear I can hear a question mark at the end of every sentence he says. Drives me NUTS. They also say "Talkinaya" and "Talkiname". As in "Hey, I'm talkinya ova heah" or "My dad called, and he was talkiname about..." Maybe it's tawlkiname. Whatever. Drives me nuts. They also say "I don't care to..." or "He doesn't care to do his taxes". Whe?
posted by TomMelee at 2:14 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm from West Virginia and this is a pretty common usage there. Like other posters, I didn't even realize that there was anything wrong with it until my wife (who is from the south) started calling me on it. To this day, it still drives her nuts when I do this.
posted by anansi at 2:15 PM on February 21, 2008


CMU actually has a professor of who specializes in Pittsburghese:

This her research website.

And this is her giving a lecture on the subject.
posted by octothorpe at 2:23 PM on February 21, 2008 [3 favorites]


Oh and one of my favorite Pennsylvanianisms is "red light" instead of traffic light. As in, "go down three red lights and take a left." The first time I heard that, I said innocently, "what if they're not red?" and the person looked at me like I was nuts.
posted by octothorpe at 2:33 PM on February 21, 2008


I also think this horrifying usage is picking up adherents. I never heard it until about a year ago, and I am hearing it more and more now. I suspect some person in popular culture, Nascar maybe, is using it and it's catching on. I find it to be more offensive than anything I've ever heard in Baltimore.

"Red light" isn't just a PAism. Far more people in my experience use it rather than "traffic light".
posted by gjc at 5:11 PM on February 21, 2008


"Needs done" is pretty common in southern Indiana. I'd never heard it till I moved there, and I haven't heard it since I moved away.
posted by tangerine at 5:28 PM on February 21, 2008


chez shoes - you sure her parents were both Clevelanders as well? And - for that matter - that she was a Clevelander, and not from Columbus or Cincinnati? 'Cause neither "TAY-coes" nor "needs verb-ed" are typical Cleveland speech. (And yes, to my Northeast Ohioan ear, the distinction is between "done with class" and "done with classes"; you need the "with" in both.)

I love learning about dialects, but I do have to say that the "needs verb-ed" usage really grates, and it's taken a while for me to learn not to bring it up to my Western Pennsylvanian friends.
posted by ubersturm at 6:06 PM on February 21, 2008


I'm from California originally and myself and a few of my sibs attended a small school north of Pittsburgh. We always thought it was funny, but my one sister best summed it up this way:

The crux of Shakespeare, in Pittsburgh:

Or not.

posted by allkindsoftime at 1:54 AM on February 22, 2008


Yep! For my Irish in-laws, the house "needs painting", the car "needs washing", the laundry "needs airing"...just be glad the Irish "me" instead of "my" hasn't been imported.

It's like fingernails on a chalkboard to hear "Where's me pencil?" "That's me son in the photo there"...
posted by InfinateJane at 6:48 AM on February 22, 2008


Two more things. A recent piece from the Boston Globe points out:
But there's another recent use of need, about the same vintage as needs fixed, that we all find acceptable: The OED's first example, from 1911, is "Any dirty work you need done." That is, if the thing being fixed (washed, done) is the object rather than the subject of the verb, we like it just fine. She needs it done today.

And yet, the same infinitive is omitted in both expressions:

He needs the car [to be] washed.

The car needs [to be] washed.

Why would the first become standard while the second remained a minority usage? Maybe because, with needs to be fixed and needs fixing already in circulation, there was little demand for the third variation, needs fixed.
This raises an interesting point - that few people, if any, are are offended by "he needs the car washed," and yet it's hard to think of any meaningful difference (other than the subject-object switch) between that and the other horrible, awful, grating, annoying, weird, and "wrong" instances of dropped "to be" in this thread. Second, mentioned by the Globe is a brief discussion on Language Log, a blog populated by real-life linguists, which notes:
The answers that linguists give are rarely fully satisfying to the questioners. Mostly, we explain the history of a variant, if we know it or can find it out, and we appeal to general mechanisms of change -- of sound change, syntactic change, semantic change, borrowing, lexical innovation, and so on. So we say that the construction in needs washed is just a continuation of a pattern in the speech of Scots-Irish settlers in the U.S. When pressed further, we explain that the construction makes syntactic sense: the subject of needs washed is understood as the object of the verb WASH, so the semantics here is a lot like the semantics of the passive, and we use the past participle form (washed) in the passive, so why not use it here?

At this point, our questioner is likely to say that that's all fine and good, but why did the Scots-Irish, and not other people, innovate this variant?
Much of the time, the answer depends on nothing more than chance.
posted by chinston at 7:05 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Haha. I love this thread. I had no idea there was even anything wrong with dropping the "to be" until I dated a girl who was very adamant about it not being used. (NW PA here)

And Pittsburghese is definitely a language all its own.
posted by boreddusty at 7:24 AM on February 22, 2008


ubersturm, I'll bet that's it - her parents were not native Clevelanders; I'm pretty sure they grew up someplace more rural. I know that there was apple farming involved, but I don't know where - now that I've read this discussion, I suspect it must have been outside of Columbus.
posted by chez shoes at 9:24 PM on February 23, 2008


For posterity. Just in case you want to hear what Pittsburghese sounds like:

Chipped Ham Sam and Nebby Debbie
posted by jeanmari at 7:40 PM on April 13, 2008


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