Needs washed

“Its origins need traced.”

(Stabley 1959)


The needs washed construction consists of a form of the verb need (or want or like) followed by a passive participle. For example, in sentence (1), needs repaired is an example of this construction; it has needs followed by the passive participle repaired:

1) The car needs repaired.

In standard English, (1) would not be acceptable. Instead, repaired would need to be either an infinitive (a verb form with to), as in (2a), or a gerund (a verbal noun ending in -ing), as in (2b):

2)  a. The car needs to be repaired.

 b. The car needs repairing.

The most common verb associated with this construction is need. However, many other verbs are also possible, particularly want and like, as in the following examples from Murray and Simon (2002):

3) Cindy, this one [baby] just woke up and probably wants fed.

4) [The dog] sure does like petted.

This construction is also sometimes referred to as need + V-en, where V stands for a verb, and -en indicates that the verb has a passive participle ending (even though this passive participle ending may be -ed, as in fixed, -n, as in thrown, or something else).

Who says this?

Murray and Simon (2002) describe the rough boundaries as Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, Northern West Virginia, and Central Indiana. Pockets of speakers may exist in places as far-spread as Kentucky and Illinois. This construction is also attested in Scots English, which might be its historical source.

Murray and Simon (2002) found that unlike white speakers, virtually no black speakers accept like + V-en. Wood et al. (2022) found that the geographic patterns of acceptance are much stronger in speakers that live in rural areas.

Map created by Josephine Holubkov on May 30th, 2020

See our interactive map below to explore some of the raw data in more detail.

Syntactic Properties

Allowed verbs

For a long time, it was believed that need, want, and like were the only verbs that could be the main verb in this construction. Recently, however, Duncan (2024) conducted a large-scale study that shows that 18 additional verbs receive high acceptability ratings in the relevant US regions. These include deserve, require, and (could) stand, as in the following example sentences from Duncan (2021, 2024):

5) a. I don't think he deserves fired.

b. This paperwork requires completed.

c. His room could stand cleaned up a bit.

Other allowed verbs include love (corroborated by Wood et al. 2022), hate, prefer, and expect. Duncan (2024) reports that out of the 116 verbs tested, those relating to choice, desire, sentiment, and necessity were accepted at much higher rates than verbs in other semantic groups (such as arranging for future events or preventing a future event).

Verbal passives, not adjectival passives

A question many researchers have addressed is whether the participle in the needs washed construction is a verbal passive or an adjectival passive. These two types of passive participles can be difficult to distinguish because they use the same verbal form, as in (6):

6) a. The Minotaur is being defeated.

b. The Minotaur seems defeated.

By-phrases are traditionally used to differentiate between the two types because adjectival passives cannot take by-phrases. For example, (7a), which has a verbal passive, is acceptable, while (7b), which has an adjectival passive, is not:

7) a. The Minotaur is being defeated by Theseus.

b. *The Minotaur seems defeated by Theseus.

Therefore, the needs washed construction would seem to involve the verbal passive if it could take a by-phrase. While Brassil (2009) claimed that needs washed sentences are generally incompatible with by-phrases, Whitman (2010) and Edelstein (2014) have argued that by-phrases are, in fact, possible. For example, the sentences in (8) from Whitman (2010) and those in (9) from Edelstein (2014) were acceptable to many speakers:

8)  a.*The car needs washed, not necessarily by you, but by someone before the weekend.

 b.*I’ve written up the document, but before it goes out, it needs checked by Kim, Alex, and Sandy.

9)  a.*The baby wants cuddled by her mother.

 b.*The soul needs fed by creative, multi-dimensional teaching.

However, Bruening (2014) argues that adjectival passives can actually occur with by-phrases, as in the following piece of dialogue:

10) Invading Commander: I want the treasury left untouched!
      Underling: Untouched by anyone but you, you mean.

If Bruening's argument is accepted, by-phrases are not so useful a diagnostic to determine whether needs washed sentences involve adjectival or verbal passives. However, there are other reasons to think that they involve verbal passives.

According to Edelstein (2014), adverbs which may precede adjectival passives do not occur naturally with needs washed sentences. For example, well may precede adjectival passives, as shown in (11a), but well may not precede the passive participle in the needs washed construction in (11b):

11)   a.*The letter seems well written.

 b.**The letter needs well written.

((11b) is originally from Edelstein (2014))

If "needs washed" sentences involved adjectival participles, we would expect (11b) to be possible. The unacceptability of (11b) therefore suggests that needs washed sentences involve verbal passive participles rather than adjectival passive participles.

Purpose clauses allowed

Purpose infinitives (infinitives in which to can be interpreted as in order to) are possible with the needs washed construction, according to Edelstein (2014), who provides the examples in (13):

13)   a.*The new set still needs washed to kill germs.

 b.*Your brain needs fed to work out.

 c.*He wants cuddled to go to sleep.

Non-volitional subjects allowed

Edelstein (2014) also claims that the subject of the construction is not necessarily volitional, even when the verb is want or like, both of which would typically have volitional subjects outside this construction. She cites the sentences in (14) as examples of this construction with non-volitional subjects:

14)   a.*That Doctor of hers wants reprimanded for missing that one!!

 b.*All kids want told off from time to time.

 c.*[a particular plant...] is easy to grow, except that it ‘likes watered every day’.

((14c) is originally from Murray and Simon (2002:41))

In these sentences, it is obvious that it is not the doctor's desire to be reprimanded, or the kids' desire to be told off, and, given the context, (14c) is probably not meant to express the desire of a (perhaps anthropomorphized) plant. In these uses, the meaning of the verb comes quite close to 'need.'

Auxiliary need need not apply

In the presence of negation, the word need can be an auxiliary or a main verb. When it is an auxiliary, it precedes negation and does not have the suffix -s as in (15a), but when it is a main verb, do is required and need follows the negation as in (15b):

15)   a.*The car needn't be washed so thoroughly.

 b.*The car doesn't need to be washed so thoroughly.

Edelstein (2014) points out that need is only possible as a main verb in the needs washed construction. Auxiliary need is not possible. This is shown by the fact that (16a) is unacceptable while (16b) is acceptable:

16)   a.*The car needn't washed.

 b.*The car doesn't need washed.

Psych verbs possible

According to a study of Pittsburgh speakers by Tenny (1998), the needs washed construction is possible for some speakers with psych-verbs, even when the subject is not volitional. Examples of the needs washed construction with psych-verbs are shown in (17):

17)   a. Some people need saddened by tragedy, in order to achieve wisdom.

 b. Nobody needs angered by the truth.

Tenny (1998) argues that the needs washed construction involves an unambiguously verbal passive and cannot be an adjectival passive. Therefore, she claims, the facts of the needs washed construction are only compatible with theories that allow non-agentive psych-verbs to form verbal passives. As such, the needs washed construction has the potential to tell us something about language that would have been harder to figure out otherwise.

Recent Survey Results

The interactive map below shows some of the raw data from our recent survey work.

Important vocabulary for this page

See the full glossary for linguistic terms relevant to other pages

Participle: A form of a verb that can combine with helping verbs to create various tenses. Past participles combine with auxiliary have to form the perfect tense, as in She has written four pages today. In English, they usually end in -en (eaten, taken), -ed (worked, baked), or -n (thrown, drawn). Passive participles combine with a form of be to form the passive voice, as in The pictures were taken on Monday. In English, the past participle and passive participle of a verb look identical, but we label them differently because they have different functions.

Passive voice: A way of constructing a sentence without mentioning the entity that performs the action denoted by the verb. For example, the sentence The floors are cleaned every week is in the passive voice; any counterpart in the active voice would require the addition of an agent, as in Joe cleans the floors every week. In English, the passive voice requires a form of the verb be, such as is or was, and a verb in its passive participle form, such as cleaned. The standard English version of the needs washed construction involves the passive voice, as in The car needs to be washed.

Passive participle: The form of a verb that combines with a form of be to create the passive voice, as in Nothing was taken from my office, where taken is a passive participle. See entries on "Participle" and "Passive voice" above for further explanation.

Volitional: A noun phrase is volitional if it refers to someone who is acting according to their own desires or will. For example, in the sentence Brutus murdered Julius Caesar, the subject Brutus is volitional, while in the sentence The hurricane killed many people, the subject the hurricane is non-volitional. The verbs want and like typically have volitional subjects (Mary wants long legs vs. #The table wants long legs). It is therefore surprising that both want and like can take non-volitional subjects in the needs washed construction.

Auxiliary: Sometimes known as "helping verbs," auxiliaries like be, do, and have are used alongside main verbs to express tense and aspect, among other things. For example, in the sentence I am talking to Mary, the auxiliary am indicates that the event is taking place in the present, while in I was talking to Mary, the auxiliary was indicates that the event was taking place in the past.

Main verb: The verb that describes the primary action or state that the sentence is about. In the sentence I have talked to Mary already, the main verb is talked, whereas have is an auxiliary.

Psych-verb: A psychological verb, or psych-verb, is a verb that expresses a mental and/or emotional state (or event). For example, in a sentence like Mary loves her pet turtle, the psych-verb love expresses the emotional state of the subject (Mary). In a sentence like Mary's behavior angers me, the psych-verb anger expresses the emotional state of the object (me). When the object's emotional state is expressed, the subject is sometimes volitional (as in Mary is bothering me on purpose) and sometimes non-volitional (as in That news really bothered me).

Page contributed by Zach Maher and Jim Wood on June 11, 2011

Updates/revisions: August 22, 2015 (Tom McCoy); June 12, 2018 (Katie Martin); June 14, 2024 (Sarah Sparling)

Please cite this page as: Maher, Zach and Jim Wood. 2011. Needs washed. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/needs-washed. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD). Updated by Tom McCoy (2015) and Katie Martin (2018).

References

Phenomenon Category: 
Tense, Aspect, Mood
Phenomenon Dialect: 
Appalachian English
Midwestern American English