Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Needs read

Sometimes I wish that I was the one in grad school, but not really. Not right now. One grad student is plenty for our household. Still, there are classes I wish I could take and things that I wish I could research and learn about.

For example, I really want to research how Arabic writers hold their pens. Since left-handed people hold their pens differently when writing left-to-right, I wonder if right-handed people hold their pens differently when writing right-to-left. I think I hold my pen the same way for both directions, but I’m not a “native” Arabic writer. I haven’t ever paid close attention to how Arabs write, though. Do they write differently? Should I be holding my pen differently when I write in Arabic? Is writing in Arabic easier for left-handed people?

So many questions, so little time.

Another thing I’ve been noticing is “to be” verbs, or rather the lack thereof. I first noticed this back in 2007 when I was still working at the Special Collections Library at BYU. I had a student who was constantly eliding his to be verbs and it was driving me crazy.

“I’m going to clock out now. There are still a few books that need sorted and some labels still need dry.”

At first I thought that it was an accident—lack of sleep, in a rush, thinking in Russian—but after a while I realized it was just how he spoke naturally. And it made me cringe. Every time.

In my mind it was nothing but a great, big sentence fail. I marked all his sentences with huge asterisks, mentally chopped down all his parse trees, and had to echo everything he said in my brain…with corrections, of course.

“I’m going to clock out now.” I would repeat to myself, “There are still a few books that need *(to be) sorted and some labels still need *(to) dry.”

Eventually he left for greener fields (at the business school) and I would have forgotten about this grammatical oddity except  now that I was aware of it I heard it everywhere. It sounds so backwards to me, so uneducated, so wrong. I try to think of myself as more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist for various reasons; I try to think of things as interesting rather than wrong. But this?

This is something that makes me cringe.

Like how Utahns, as a general rule, say “acrosst” instead of “across” and “heighth” instead of “height.” Those things also make me cringe.

Or when people list things as “for sell” instead of “for sale.” That, too, makes me cringe.

I could list several things that make me cringe, really, but what I find interesting about all of them is that educated people are often the ones saying things like this.

My student employee in the library was a student at a university. I have another friend who often elides their “to be” verb and s/he is a high school English teacher. And yet…

So I’m interested to know who says stuff like that. Where are they from? Why do they do it? What are they thinking? How do they not cringe when they speak?

The other day I said to Andrew, “Miriam needs her bum changed.”

Then I had to analyze that because I realized that was the exact same sentence structure that I detested but that it sounded okay when I said it. So I reworded that sentence several times.

  1. Miriam needs her bum changed.
  2. Miriam needs her bum to be changed.
  3. Miriam needs a bum change.
  4. Miriam needs a bum to be change.*
  5. Her bum needs a change.
  6. Her bum needs to be changed.
  7. Her bum needs changed.*

Only two examples seem blatantly wrong to me. Number five doesn’t work because the “to be” verb is splitting up the noun phrase “bum change,” and isn’t necessary in this sentence since “bum change” is the answer to the question “What does Miriam need?” She needs a bum change. She needs a cookie. See? It’s a noun (phrase), so it’s a valid sentence.

It’s number seven that I can’t quite figure out.

Why? Why do I hate that sentence so much when sentence number one sounds perfectly fine to my ears?

Miriam needs her bum changed. Okay. Her bum needs changed. Not okay. Soooo not okay.

I suppose it’s because “changed” doesn’t answer the question of what her bum needs, at least, not for me. What does Miriam’s bum need?

Her bum needs pampering.
Her bum needs to be pampered.
Her bum needs pampered.*

“Pampering” is a gerund, we could replace it with any number of nouns. Lotion, powder, cream, ointment, washing, drying… “To be pampered” is a whole phrase and we can also replace that with any number of phrases. To be washed, to be dried, to be spanked, to be wiped, to be diapered, to be sat on the potty… “Pampered” is a past participle. Apparently I can’t just put a past participle on my tree after a verb without something supporting it. Mostly because it drives me berserk. Also because it is wrong.

It seems that this only ever occurs after the verb “need.” I can’t figure out why. What attributes does this verb have that make people feel so comfortable dropping the much needed “to be” verb.

I guess I just need observe more before drawing my conclusions.

I mean, of course, that I need to observe more. Also, I need more focused time to develop my thoughts.

Welcome to my world. This is what I do all day long. I suppose I’m still confident to say I’m a self-proclaimed descriptivist since I really just want to know who says this, what role they think the verb is filling, and what region this anomaly is contained in (so I am sure never to move there). It’s not wrong…just interesting. Interesting and cringe-worthy.

Rachel should never have this problem. Currently all her prepositions are compound prepositions—she tacks “to” onto everything.

“We must hide into the bedroom.”

“Let’s go out-to-side.”

“Will you read this at-to me?”

“Put the toothpaste onto my toothbrush.”

“We will ride onto an airplane to get unto America.”

“What does it say into this book?”

Now I just have to make sure she never leaves out that precious syllable between “need” and past participles.

Do you ever say need + past participle? If so, where are you from and what are you thinking?


  1. Wow. Still so many thoughts on this.

    Like, aside from past participles.

    This book needs *(to) dry.

    Would a person who says that ever leave the "to" off in the following sentence?

    I need *(to) pee.

    That little "to" drastically alters the sentence.

    And I definitely am stuck thinking about bodily functions. I think it's the never-ending potty training (well, elimination communication) that we've been doing for the past 2.5 years. We have potties and cloth diapers all over the house. All. Over. The. House.

  2. "This book needs dry" begs the question "Dry what?" "This book needs dry air."

  3. But, "her bum needs changed" is a valid sentence when you use need as a noun. It went from perhaps needing a spanking to needing a diaper change, but the needs changed. Sounding correct depends on the inflection used when you say it. If you stress the changed part of the sentence, separating it slightly from the rest ("her bum needs" changed), then it sounds totally fine. :)

  4. Oh, and I got teased the other day for pronouncing every syllable in comfortable. They pronounce it "comfterble". Weird.

  5. My pet peeve is "I graduated High School." How can YOU graduate high school? What power do you have over it to graduate it? What you do is graduate FROM high least, that is what I think.

  6. Yes, I suppose that is true, David, although that changes the entire meaning of the sentence.

  7. On the pen question, I'll do some research for you next time Rere makes out a shopping list. Just so you can finally know....

  8. 'Like how Utahns, as a general rule, say “acrosst” instead of “across” and “heighth” instead of “height.” Those things also make me cringe.

    Or when people list things as “for sell” instead of “for sale.” That, too, makes me cringe."

    Amen! I really hope that a child raised in Utah can learn to not speak like a Utahn. I don't mean that in a snobby "I'm too good to live here" sort of way, but I would like my son to be able to form complete and proper sentences. Y'know?

  9. I don't think I do that, since it sounds wrong to me as well. What bugs me is when people say "there's" when they should say "there are". If I were better at grammar then I'm sure I'd be bothered by more than just the constant "there's" that surround me but, alas, I'm not. Oh, and David, I've been teased for saying "exactly" very, well, exactly.

  10. I also get annoyed by Utah-isms, or what I like to call uneducated speaker-isms.

    I personally think that the worst one is "a whole nother", as in, I would tell you about _______, but that's a whole nother subject.


    PS I can't figure out why you don't like one but like the other... could it perhaps be the subject? In one, Miriam is the subject, in the other, her bum is. Maybe it's a subconcious choice?

  11. The subject is rather irrelevant, it's more the sentence structure.

    The boy needs his hair washed.
    His hair needs washed.

    And I heard this just the other day...from a non-Utahn, non-Mormon:

    The toys need organized.

    I wouldn't say that. I would say "the toys need to be organized" or "he needs his toys organized."

    It definitely has to do with sentence structure.

    And, just a note, this isn't a "Utah" trend. Also, educated people use this sentence structure...and all the Utahisms mentioned.

  12. Hmm I wonder what it could be about that style of speech, then...

    Also, my in-laws (from Pennsylvania) always use "needs replaced" and other phrases similar to that--I didn't mean that those sentences are Utah-isms. Utah is just the only place I hear people say "A whole nother" (the Utah part was also a response to the comments left previous to mine).

    And I'm sorry--I also didn't mean to offend you. Unless you're not offended. I can hardly ever tell on these things.

  13. No, I'm not offended. The whole nother thing is definitely a Utah thing but I wouldn't be surprised to see it elsewhere. It's something that I find hilarious. :)

    Good to know that your in-laws are from Pennsylvania. My friend is from Ohio. My student was from Utah...that's what I can't figure out, because I don't think this is a Utah thing at all.

    So, you know Diana?

  14. Haha, oh good. That whole thing is so weird! I always use the same phrase structure as you, and I'm from Utah, so I'm not sure... ?

    Yes, we went to elementary through high school together, and I was locker buddies with Katherine in the 7th or 8th grade, I can't remember which.