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This needs edited

Lisa from Aberdeen Proving Ground sent this National Grammar Day note to Midday with Dan Rodricks:

For the past few years I have noticed people make statements such as "that car needs washed". What happened to the transitional verb? Is that what is missing?, also, what about people saying they "graduated high school", shouldn't it be "from" high school?

My wife’s family comes from Pittsburgh, where “the car needs washed,” “the grass needs mowed” and similar constructions are common. Timothy C. Frazer of Western Illinois University has identified this construction, in which the infinitive is omitted between a verb of volition and a past participle, as a distinctive Midwestern speech pattern, is rising from Scotch-Irish speech patterns, particularly in the parts of the Midwest settled from Pennsylvania and Appalachia.*

It is, of course, colloquial English, regional colloquial English at that, rather than what one would expect in the dialect we call standard written English.

As to graduate, the history of the word over the past century and a half is a miniature picture of language in transition. Some older readers may remember having been taught that graduation is not something the student does but something the school does — a hobbyhorse of 19th-century grammatical purists. The preferred form taught in many handbooks and textbooks used to be that one was graduated from college or university.

Over the span of the 20th century, that transitive sense —schools graduate students — shifted to an intransitive sense — students graduate from school. At the same time, the colloquial expression shifted the sense back to transitive — she graduated college. The intransitive sense — students graduate from school — remains the form in standard written English. Whether the colloquial transitive will overtake it remains to be seen. I may not be around to see the outcome.


* His article in The American Midwest, edited by Richard Sisson, Christian K. Zacher and Andrew Cayton, can be found previewed on Google Books.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:40 PM | | Comments (7)


It's very common out here in Cumberland, too - took a little getting used to!

A bit of advice to the lovelorn about regional colloquial English. There may be advantages to marrying someone who speaks the same variety you do. I wince just a tiny bit when my wife asks where something "is at"; she thinks I'm an unlettered clod because I call a small stream a "crick" (at least if it's in a hilly area). Apart from that, we get along fine. This "needs washed" thing is something I wouldn't even notice someone else saying, but I don't think I'd say it myself.

I submitted this same question to Mark Lieberman at LL a couple of months ago. No response yet. I have noticed the form only in the last 6 to 9 months in this area. It brings me to a halt.

Professor Frazer is one of the contributors to an article that examines this linguistic phenomenon in greater detail:

Murray, T. E., T. C. Frazer, and B. L. Simon. "Need + past participle in American English." American Speech (1996) 71(3): 255-271.

The article does not appear to be available online.

"Where at" is (I believe) a result of losing "whence" and "whither", especially since many people use "where" where "where to" is expected. "Where at, to, from" is just a recovery of the lost triplet of adverbs. In a way, it's the more "logical" system.

I first encountered the "needs washed" construction five or six years ago, when I heard it used by a friend and a coworker, both of whom had Pittsburgh roots. The coworker also had family in eastern Ohio. So for a while, I theorized that this is "a Pittsburgh thing." Subsequent encounters with Pittsburgh people confirmed this. I am glad to see scholars formally describe this point on the dialect map.

As for "where at," I'm reminded of a joke my brother and I sometimes tell (herewith a version with me as the butt of the joke): I used to work the customer service desk at Towson Town Center. A customer approached the desk one day and asked, "Excuse me, miss, where's the Nordstrom at?"

"Didn't they ever teach you not to end a sentence with a preposition?" I sniffed.

"Oh, excuse me," the customer replied. "Where's the Nordstrom at,

It's also common in southern New Zealand, populated relatively recently by Scots and Irish immigrants.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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