Posted by Neal on January 29, 2010
Around these parts, there’s an unusual kind of syntactic construction used to express necessity. I first heard about it in a class on historical linguistics, but didn’t hear it “in the wild” (as we linguists say) until I was married and heard my brother-in-law say at a cookout,
The burgers need flipped.
That is, where I would say “The burgers need to be flipped”, this construction has the passive participle (flipped in this example) right after need. This needs done construction is one of the features of Appalachian English, although it also shows up in varieties of English north of the Appalachians. Since I heard that first example, I’ve heard many others from many people. It’s part of my wife’s dialect, so Doug and Adam have acquired it, too.
In light of my personal experience with needs done, I was interested to hear a talk at LSA 2010 by Dan Brassil called “A Middle Voice in Appalachian English”. He was making an interesting claim: That needs done is not a case of passive voice; in other words, it’s not just the same kind of structure as needs to be done with the to be omitted, as has been argued in the past. Instead, he claims that it’s an example of middle voice.
What is middle voice? It’s a strange hybrid of active form and passive meaning. It’s a very restricted phenomenon in English, occurring only in examples like these:
- I don’t scare easily.
- The soup that eats like a meal.
- This item cleans easily with mild soap and water.
The verbs are active in form: don’t scare instead of am not scared, eats instead of is eaten, cleans instead of is cleaned. But the meaning is passive, because the subject is not performing the action of the verb, but is on the receiving end: the speaker is not doing the scaring; the soup is not doing the eating; the item is not doing the cleaning. Brassil argues that needs done is more like scares easily than like needs to be done. I disagree.
Middle voice and passive voice have in common that you don’t have to express the agent of the action (indeed, that’s a primary reason for using middle or passive instead of active). But they differ in several ways (aside from the obvious one of having active vs. passive morphology), and Brassil makes his case by showing that in most of those ways, needs done patterns with the middle voice rather than the passive.
Most, not all. First, let’s look at the property where Brassil says that needs done acts like a passive. It has to do with “agent-oriented adverbs”. In the sentence Paul Sereno wrapped the dinosaur bones in plaster to protect them, the purpose infinitival phrase to protect them is talking about Paul Sereno’s purpose. So far so good. Now make the sentence passive: The dinosaur bones were wrapped in plaster to protect them. Does to protect them now refer to the dinosaur bones’ purpose? No, it’s still talking about the purpose of whoever did the wrapping; in other words, it’s an agent-oriented adverbial. However, this agent-oriented adverbial is ungrammatical when we put it in a middle-voice sentence, like the one in 3. (I’ve switched to present tense in this sentence for a reason to be explained when we get to the next property.) The same pattern holds for carefully in 7, 8, and 9.
- Paul Sereno wrapped the dinosaur bones in plaster to protect them.
- The dinosaur bones were wrapped in plaster to protect them.
- *The dinosaur bones wrap to protect them.
- Back at the lab, the technicians carefully removed the plaster jacket.
- Back at the lab, the plaster jacket was carefully removed.
- *Back at the lab, plaster jackets remove carefully.
Aside from how it behaves with agent-oriented adverbials, Brassil claims that needs done patterns with middle voice, not passive. One way in which Brassil believes it does this is in regard to the kind of event it can describe. One of the restrictions on middle voice in English is that it can’t refer to specific, or episodic, events; it refers to a more general, abstract kind of event. (That’s the reason I switched to the present tense in The dinosaur bones wrap and The plaster jackets remove: I didn’t want there to be a chance that these sentences were ungrammatical because they were describing specific events instead of because of the agent-oriented adverbs, so I put them in a tense is more often used to describe habitual actions.) People don’t say things like these:
- ?He scared easily when I sneaked up on him.
- ?The soup I had for lunch today really ate like a meal.
- ?The shirt cleaned easily with mild soap and water.
At least, that’s the received wisdom about the middle voice. I marked the sentences above with question marks instead of asterisks because I think they sound all right. Brassil, however, accepts the position that middle voice in English cannot describe episodic events, and argues that needs done can’t, either. In his handout he gave these examples and labeled them as ungrammatical:
- These laminate floors need cleaned at noon.
- The databases needed synched at 8 this morning.
To me, though, these sound as good as any other needs done construction. Of course, I’m not a native speaker when it comes to needs done, but they sound fine to my wife, too. If needs done is in your grammar, I welcome your judgments.
So in short, I’m saying that: (1) the middle voice can describe episodic events, like the passive voice; and (2) second, that even if the middle voice couldn’t describe episodic events, needs done can. Again, it’s behaving like a passive.
The other main area where Brassil believes needs done falls into line with passives is in whether the agent is allowed to be expressed. Comparing passives and middles, we can see that agents can optionally be expressed with a by-phrase in passives, but are ungrammatical with middles:
- The dinosaur bones were wrapped in plaster jackets by Paul Sereno.
- Back at the lab, the plaster jackets were removed by technicians.
- *I don’t scare easily by most people.
- *The soup that eats like a meal by the average American.
- *This item washes easily by people I know.
I agree with Brassil’s judgments here. Now how do the needs done examples stack up? Brassil gives these examples, and marks them ungrammatical (I’ll withhold judgment for now):
- Her dress needs washed by Alexis.
- Rice needs cooked by Bob.
I wasn’t sure if these sentences were grammatical or not, so I went to CoCA and ran a search for [need].[v*] [v?n*]. Out of 115 hits, eleven turned out to be relevant, and none of them mentioned an agent:
- Just as Hitler needed removed from power, so did Saddam.
- …trash that needed burned…
- …they needed burned.
- Something needs changed. [twice]
- a system that badly needs changed
- Ms. Verma asked them what questions needed answered.
- we will do what needs done.
- the … thing that needs done now
- …something that needed done
- …doing what needed done
But could an agent have been expressed? Once again I checked with my wife. She didn’t like Brassil’s examples, but I suspected it might just be for pragmatic reasons: If you want to express the agent, why not just use the active voice? So I tried some sentences where it made sense both for the patient to be the subject, and for the agent to be mentioned explicitly. She had no problem with these:
- The car needs washed, not necessarily by you, but by someone before the weekend.
- I’ve written up the document, but before it goes out, it needs checked by Kim, Alex, and Sandy.
As before, I welcome judgments from other speakers who have needs done in their grammar.
So once again, the needs done construction is acting like the passive voice, not the middle voice. Nevertheless, I agree with Brassil that a good analysis of the construction is not one where you just say, “Oh, it’s really needs to be done with the to be omitted.” What I’d say about it is that the individual verb need (and maybe want, as well) have gained a new syntactic category: One that combines with a passive participial complement (minus a noun phrase) to produce a verb phrase.