This Sink Needs Fixed

By Maeve Maddox

Maureen Garrison writes:

Have you discussed the way people leave out “to be” in phrases such as “This needs to be washed?”  I keep hearing and seeing in print, “This needs washed.”  I assume it should be, “This needs to be washed,” or “This needs washing,” but maybe I’m missing something.  I’d love to see an explanation. Is this a mistake, a colloquialism, or something that is new only to me?

What I call the “needs fixed” construction is a regionalism that has gained wide acceptance in colloquial speech.

The expression is often associated with Pittsburgh and “a narrow band in the middle of the country extending from the east coast to Montana.” I grew up outside those regional boundaries and am quite used to hearing “The lawn needs mowed” and “This sink needs fixed.”

The construction, standard in Scottish usage, seems to stir the hackles of US speakers to whom it is unfamiliar. I won’t bother to quote any of the ugly comments about it that I’ve read on other language sites.

Here are some web examples from different regions:

Lee Adama needs slapped (Scots blogger)

Microsoft Needs Slapped. (Texas)

Help! My Lawn NEEDS mowed! My Toro Starts but Stalls! (Ohio)

The expression is camouflaged by other words in the following sentence, but I think it also partakes of the “needs fixed” pattern:

The Left Needs Its Mouth Washed Out With Soap (Washington DC)

Objections arise–and are valid–if the word “needs” is regarded as a transitive verb. Speakers who see needs as a transitive verb understandably want it to be followed by a discernible object: a noun substitute, either a “to be” phrase or a present participle:

The lawn needs to be mowed.

The lawn needs mowing.

However, the word needs does not function as a transitive verb in the expression “needs fixed.” It acts as a kind of auxiliary verb, similar to “to be” in a passive construction. The
-ed word that follows is also a verb.

The lawn needs mowed differs from The lawn needs mowing and The lawn needs to be mowed in that the desired action goes beyond a projected future event and anticipates an accomplished fact.

The “needs fixed” construction demands action. The alternative versions permit a vagueness that “needs fixed” does not. It says “no more dilly-dallying!”

This lawn needs mowed today!
If you want supper, this stove needs fixed.

Bottom line: The “needs fixed” expression is best avoided in a formal context, but there’s nothing wrong with its informal use. Use the version you prefer and let others do the same without ridicule.

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33 Responses to “This Sink Needs Fixed”

  • Ron

    Are you saying they teach needs fix, needs slapped, needs mowed in schools back there? That’s tantamount to When they tried to teach Ebonics in the Oakland, California School District. Shame on them.

  • J. Elizabeth Mills

    Thank you for this post. As a native Pittsburgher, now living in Seattle, I often use the “needs fixed” sentence construction in everyday speech, sometimes as a point of pride for my city. It’s nice to read an explanation of its origin. We Pittsburghers are doers, it’s nice to know our speech reflects that spirit.

  • Silke

    God, I hate that phrase.
    Personally, it’s a fingers-on-blackboard reaction for me. 🙂

  • Charity

    Does this “narrow band in the middle of the country” also cover Southern Illinois? I’ve heard this construction so frequently in my life that I was honestly surprised to read that it’s not common everywhere.

    I’ve occasionally wondered about its technical correctness, but it’s just the way people speak here.

  • Cathy

    O.K., Ron and Silke, let’s see if I understand this correctly. Suppose my sink is clogged and water … stinky, dirty sewer water … is overflowing onto to the floor. My husband (or wife with plumbing skills) is standing before me. Do I say, “This sink needs to be fixed now!” or, to be more grammatically correct, “I need for you to fix this sink now!”? Since I was raised in the Pittsburgh area and have a strong Scottish background, will you fault me for saying, “This sink needs fixed!”

  • Maeve

    @Ron
    Who said anything about teaching the “needs fixed” idiom? If teaching a construction in the classroom were any guarantee that it would catch on in daily speech, there wouldn’t be much to talk about on sites like this one.

    “Needs fixed” is a colloquialism. Unlike the grammar of “Ebonics,” the idiom “needs fixed” occurs in the informal speech of a great many speakers of standard English.

  • Ken Khelah

    “Use the version you prefer and let others do the same without ridicule.” –Maeve

    That is respect. Good post.

  • Sharon H

    It must just be what you’re used to hearing. It sounds odd to me, but the phrase “fixing to” (or more commonly, fixin’ to) is completely normal.

    People from other areas of the country wince when we use it, but there isn’t any point in trying not to say it (it’s built in).

    I’m fixing to get back to work, and let others speak as they prefer!

  • NEB

    This is a new one on me. I’ve never heard the “needs fixed” construction before. It definitely sounds wrong to my (British English) ear, and I’m surprised to read it’s used by the Scots as standard. I’d say ‘The sink needs to be fixed,’ or ‘The sink needs fixing.’

  • Sheila

    After moving to Texas I learned that everything needs “fixin”!

  • Deborah H

    Isn’t “fix” a dandy word? So many uses!

    I can live with “needs fixed” if y’all can live with “fixin’ to.”

  • Annie

    Born in UK and brought up in Australia, I’ve never come across this “Scottish” phrase and agree with NEB that it sound wrong.

    When I saw the subject line in my Inbox, I thought the post was going to be about:

    sink – sank – sunk

    More and more journalists here are getting the last two wrong!

  • Jon

    As an ex-pat Brit, I have to agree with NEB on this one – maybe the various Scots I know and have known in the past have just hidden their ‘standard’ usage of the construction.

    As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist down here in Australia, either, thankfully.

    I can’t say the construct has made it into the mainstream of American television shows of which the Australian networks are so fond.

  • Peter

    However, the word needs does not function as a transitive verb in the expression “needs fixed.” It acts as a kind of auxiliary verb, similar to “to be” in a passive construction. The
    -ed word that follows is also a verb.

    And I have a bridge for sale, going cheap!

    The “needs fixed” expression is best avoided in a formal context, but there’s nothing wrong with its informal use.

    Except for being atrociously ungrammatical, you mean…

    Use the version you prefer and let others do the same without ridicule.

    Sorry; no…anyone claiming to be a native speaker who says that in my presence WILL be mocked mercilessly!

    I can live with “needs fixed” if y’all can live with “fixin’ to.”

    I can live with “fixin’ to” — it’s grammatically correct and “fix” in the sense “prepare” is standard English, even if this particular usage is not.

  • Bob P

    That you might suggest this phrase acceptable is somewhat astonishing. And the idea that it might be taught in some school systems is unbelievable.

  • Maeve

    @Bob P and Ron
    I NEVER suggested that the phrase be taught! Puh-leez read the post.

  • Kevin MN

    That’s Pittsburgh, but it’s also Northeast Ohio. My wife grew up in Akron and she and her family use that expression frequently.

    I’m a Minneapolis, Minnesota native and I don’t ever remember hearing that phrase until I met my wife.

    Of course, we Minnesotans have a bit of a colloquial fandango ourselves… The expression I heard most growing up here is “I’m going to the store. Want to go with?” Omitting the object of the preposition, which would be “with ME” or “with US”, and just saying “want to go with?”

    The strangest bit of nonsensical fractured English, though has to be the New Englanders… who drop R’s from the ends of words [pahk the cah for park the car] or cwost a cwatah for cost a quarter], while simultaneously ADDING R’s to words that don’t have them [law = lore, martha = marthar, rebecca = rebeccer, etc].

    Which gives you “MarTHAR WARshington SAWR the WARSH on PeTAH’s back POTCH” [translation: Martha Washington saw the wash on Peter’s back porch!]

    We all have our oddities!!

  • Kevin MN

    Have seen some video/film clips of Jack Kennedy referring to CUBER (Cuba)!

  • Nick Rose

    As an Englishman who grew up with “needs fixing”, I spent ten years in Scotland and can confirm usage there of “needs fixed”. Scots elsewhere, or educated in England (or in English-influenced Scottish public schools!) may well have abandoned this usage.
    Which is correct? As long as we English-speakers have no centralised language authority (like the Académie française) and no imposed or agreed standard language (like high German or Castillan Spanish), then we must be tolerant of regional variations in terms and expressions. Let them even be taught!
    Many English people shudder when they hear the American “gotten”. But their arrogance (for that’s what it is) is misplaced. I would argue (without abandoning my native “have got”!) that “gotten” is historically more grammatically correct and it is British English that has evolved away from the previous norm here, not the American English.
    If we analyse “needs fixed” and “needs fixing”, the former is more logical. I cannot envisage a derivation for the latter at all!
    But that won’t stop me using “needs fixing”. In my job as a translation reviser, I would even “correct” the “fixed” to “fixing” unless the context required a Scottish (or Pittsburgh or Southern Illinois) construction.

  • Cecily

    Where did the idea of this construction being “standard in Scottish usage” come from? I’ve never heard it from anyone in the British Isles (I’m in England, but there are plenty of Scots on the news and who live down here), and nor have any of the other Brits who have commented.

  • Cecily

    Grr. Once again caught out by the inability to edit or even delete one’s posts. I started writing the above hours ago, before Nick Rose’s post, but clicked Submit without refreshing first. LOL

  • Tula

    Oh ugh. I hate this construct. It sounds so horrible. And for Kevin MN, the Kennedys have their own odd pronunciations and most of us in New England aren’t so extreme. Plus, odd pronunciation is far different from being ungrammatical. A New Englander may say “I’ll pahk the cah on the street” but you’ll never hear them say “the cah needs pahked.” I also know no New Englanders who add unneeded ‘R’s to words. I think you may be confusing us with New Yorkers 🙂

  • Peter

    Besides, the words “car” and “parked” don’t have any “r” sound in them, when properly pronounced (e.g., by native English speakers…not Americans 🙂 )

  • Stuart Travers

    @Cecily I’m Australian and associate the “needs fixed” construct with Scots (Glaswegian ex-colleague) and Northern English (Yorkshire mother-in-law). My paternal grandmother, a Londoner, would often say things like “the carpet wants Hoovering.” Clearly mad – she had an Electrolux, not a Hoover.

    Sorry, I know this is an old-ish post but I’ve just found the site and I’m catching up 🙂

  • naomi hamm

    correct usage in writing this sentence in the words that are correct: “This sink is horrible it needs to be fixed before we owe the water company a MILLION DOLLARS. SEE TENSION, A CONFLICT, A STORY TO GO ON! Sink is bad, so are their finances if they don’t fix the promblatic sink. Great word too: Problematic.

  • Matteen

    Hi, I’m Northern Irish and it’s common usage where I come from. As it’s spread to the US too, it seems that it’s of Scots-Irish deriviation.

  • Rochelle

    I’m from Oregon and I don’t think I have heard once in my life “The sink needs to be fixed.” It’s always “The sink needs fixed.” “Your mouth needs washed out with soap.” and so on. Grammar has been a favorite thing for me to study over the years, but on this one, oddly enough, I’m with the colloquialism. (My fiance is Scottish and says the same thing)

  • Ben F

    There is no excuses for it, irregardless of where you are from. (get it?)

  • Rich

    Moved to Columbus from Cleveland in 2003 and started hearing this amazingly wrong language construction. No one seems to mind except me. It is definitely not used where I came from in Northeast Ohio as another poster states unless it is creeping in there too. Most common among those who are multi-generational natives unlike us carpetbaggers.

  • Wade

    “Needs fixed” and (ugh) “needed fixed” is prevalent in the Boise (southern Idaho) area. But I also lived in northern Idaho, and never heard it once there that I can recall.

  • Drew

    As a native Clevelander, I absolutely abhor this turn of phrase, despite hearing it constantly. Whenever I hear “my car needs washed” or “my laundry needs dried”, it sounds like an adjective without a noun at the end of the sentence. Your car needs washed… what? Windows? Your laundry needs dried… fruit? It just feels like an incomplete sentence. As a previous commenter said, it’s like nails on a blackboard. If you use this construction, your grammar doesn’t “need corrected”. It “needs correction”.

  • Barbara

    Living in Pittsburgh for 6 years never acclimated me to “needs fixed.” However, worse than that construction is an issue of pronunciation that caused a problem in communication for me: COLLAR, COLOR, AND CALLER sound identical. But now I live near Boston, where CAR KEY, KHAKI, and COCKY are indistinguishable.

  • JRH

    To clarify on the “its Scottish in origin” angle, there is another way you could describe its usage: hillbilly. I am not saying that as a pejorative term. Its just an accurate description. FACT: Many years ago, when a lot of Scots-Irish/Ulster-Irish immigrants came to the continent, they couldn’t blend in with the English protestants on the Eastern seaboard, so they moved up into the rural hills of Appalachia. “Ya’ll” is another example of this. The point is, you may want to consider that factor when deciding which words to use and when. When tempted to use “needs fixed” in a public setting, instead of thinking “do I mind using a phrase of Scottish origin?” perhaps think, “do I mind sounding like what people consider a hillbilly?” and see if that changes your mind. If you are going into a job interview, I bet it might.

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