The Grammarphobia Blog

House cleaning

Q My boyfriend corrects me when I say something like “the house needs cleaned.” Do I have to say “the house needs to be cleaned” in order to be grammatically correct? Please help!

A: Your grammar may not be spotless here, but I wouldn’t call it outrageous either. In some parts of the country, in fact, it’s quite common.

There are two correct ways to say this: “The house needs to be cleaned” or “The house needs cleaning.”

Your variation, “The house needs cleaned,” is widely frowned upon in usage guides, but it’s an established regional idiom in Scotland, Ireland, and parts of the US. I touched on this two years ago in a blog posting.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), under its entry for the verb “need,” has this interesting Regional Note about the subject:

“When need is used as the main verb, it can be followed by a present participle, as in The car needs washing, or by to be plus a past participle, as in The car needs to be washed. However, in some areas of the United States, especially western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, many speakers omit to be and use just the past participle form, as in The car needs washed. This use of need with past participles is slightly more common in the British Isles, being particularly prevalent in Scotland.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that in Scottish, Irish, and some kinds of American English, the verb “need” is often used with a participial adjective (like “cleaned” or “walked”) as its complement.

These regional usages date from the middle of the 19th century. The OED gives examples including “the car needs washed” (that one seems to be pretty popular!) and “Does my hair need combed?”

The OED also says that “need,” used with a verbal noun (such as “cleaning” or “walking”) as its subject, has been common since about 1400. Here are a few of the OED‘s citations from major authors:

1681, John Dryden: “Young appetites are sharp, and seldom need twice bidding to such a banquet.”

1844, Charles Dickens: “That needs no accounting for.”

1847, Charlotte Brontë: “Her feelings are concentrated in one – pride; and that needs humbling.”

1915, Willa Cather: “If she wasn’t disturbed, she needed no watching.”

1916, George Bernard Shaw: “Her hair needs washing rather badly.”

1928, Eugene O’Neill: “The collegiate clothes are no longer natty, they need pressing and look too big for him.”

1940, William Faulkner: “It would need painting again this year; he must see to that.”

So “The house needs cleaning” is perfectly fine. As for “the house needs cleaned,” it isn’t the best English and shouldn’t be used for formal occasions.

But if you live in certain parts of the country, this usage is as ordinary as “standing on line” in New York or “y’all” in the South.

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