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February 8th, 2006

Needs done / unconventional likes

by Barbara Wallraff

David Roach, of Akron, Ohio, writes: “Which is correct: ‘Something needs done’ or ‘Something needs to be done’?”

Dear David: The first few dozen times someone asked me a version of this question, what went through my head was: You’ve got to be kidding. Of course “needs to be done” is correct. Who’s even heard “needs done”?

But I seem to be one of the few people in the English-speaking universe who haven’t heard it. Come to find out, it even appears in newspaper copy. Here’s a recent example from the Mount Vernon News, in your own state: “Mavis said an estimated $20,000 in work to the ditch needs done.”

Where does this bit of dialect -- and it is dialect, not standard English -- come from? According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, “need” or “needs” followed by “done” -- or “painted” or “repaired” or some other past participle -- is heard most often (on this continent, anyway) in Pennsylvania. All the same, the dictionary has examples from places as far-flung as Colorado, West Virginia and Alberta, Canada. The construction probably has its origins in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Certainly, “needs done” is alive and kicking there. Here’s a recent example from the Glasgow (Scotland) Daily Record: “I’ve been in football for 21 years and I realise what needs done.”

Darryl DiPace, of New Baltimore, Mich., writes: “I am alarmed at the epidemic of adults speaking in the same manner as teenagers. Teenagers often use the word ‘like’ in every other sentence. Teens have their own lifestyles, including manners of speaking, and I understand. However, I hear ‘like’ being used by adults in all walks of life. Our own award-winning columnist, Mitch Albom, wrote recently, ‘Did I mention that ski boots weigh like a million pounds?’ Please let me know what you think.”

Dear Darryl: What alarms me is something slightly different from what alarms you. I notice that many people -- including teenagers -- seem unable to switch between levels of language. They have just one, informal way of speaking (and writing) that they use no matter what. If language is the clothes in which we dress our thoughts, then it’s as if these people have nothing to wear but bluejeans and sweatshirts, and they wear them to job interviews, weddings -- you name it.

Then again, other people seem uncomfortable with informal language no matter what. Would they wear a business suit to a barbecue? Would they complain that civilization was ending if everyone else wore jeans?

You’re not one of these people, or you wouldn’t cut teenagers any slack. Now, can I persuade you to cut Mitch Albom a little more slack too? I think the sentence of his you quoted does a great job of demonstrating that one kind of newfangled “like” actually has a purpose. The column in which it appeared was about skiing with his young nephews, and it was informal and funny. “Ski boots weigh like a million pounds” is funnier than “ ... weigh something like a million pounds.” Don’t ask me why -- it just is.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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