The Grammarphobia Blog

Need to know

Q: Hello from North Dakota. I’m writing about the rampant use of “need” to replace “must” or “should” or “ought” or “have to,” as in “you need to” or “he needs to.” I hear “need” used for all kinds of other things too. I was in Kmart and heard an employee there say to a shopper: “I need you to take that to the customer service counter.”

A: “Need” is a confusing verb. But the short answer is that your first examples (using “need to” to replace “must” or “should” or “ought to” or “have to”) are grammatically correct. I’ll get to the Kmart example later.

As a verb, “need” can be either the main verb (“he needs glasses”) or the auxiliary. Usually “need” is the auxiliary verb only on special occasions: in present-tense questions (“need he wear glasses?”), negative statements (“he need not wear glasses”), or conditional clauses (“if need be”).

Here’s the confusing part. As a main verb, “need” can also be used with the “to”-infinitive (as in “he needs to go”; “the house needs to be cleaned”), in much the same way we use auxiliary verbs like “can” or “may” or “must.” But this is a legitimate use of “need,” going back at least as far as the 14th century. We also pair it up with the present participle (“he needs talking to”; “the house needs cleaning”). This too is a legitimate use.

What some usage authorities consider illegitimate is dropping “to be” and using a PAST participle, as in “the house needs cleaned” or “that child needs spanked.” There’s a good explanation of this in the usage note with “need” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

However, this truncated expression (“needs washed,” “needs fixed,” and so on) is a well-known usage common to many widely scattered regions of the United States. It’s even more common in Britain, particularly northern England and Scotland. I would classify it as a dialectal usage, rather than incorrect.

There are two other ways to say this, both well established and both considered correct: “needs to be washed,” or “needs washing” (which I always heard as a kid growing up in Iowa). Since “washing” in this case is a gerund, meaning that it serves the function of a noun, “the car needs washing” is perfectly logical, like “he enjoys swimming.”

As for the Kmart example (“I need you to take that to the customer service counter”), it’s heard a lot in informal speech but it’s not good usage, in my opinion. (As a variation on this theme, some speakers add the preposition “for,” as in “I need for you to take that to the customer service counter.”)

The Kmart employee might just as well have said, “Please take that to the customer service counter.” I suspect this use of “I need you to” can be blamed on excessive politeness, or an unwillingness to ask for something more directly.

Hope this answers your needs!

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