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.