English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

A needy confection

Q: In chapter 4 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Aunt Chloe uncovers “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need to have been ashamed.” Could you explain that “need to have been” construction? It doesn’t sound quite right to me.

A: Yes, there is something unusual about that passage from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel. What’s strange is the presence of “to.” The clue here is “need,” which in that sentence is a modal auxiliary and not the principal verb.

“Need” is unusual because it can go both ways. It can be the main verb in a clause (as in “no one needs a car,” “no one needs to drive”) or a modal auxiliary (“no one need drive”).

We’ve written before on the blog about modal auxiliaries (the more familiar ones include “must,” “should,” “can,” and “might”). They’re used alongside other verbs to express things like probability, necessity, permission, or obligation.

When “need” is a modal, it’s not followed by a “to” infinitive. Like the other modals, it’s followed by a bare (“to”-less) infinitive.

This bare infinitive can be the usual simple one, as in “need be,” “need go,” “need leave.” Or it can be the perfect infinitive, as in in “need have been,” “need have gone,” “need have left.

The simple infinitive is appropriate here when speaking of the present or future: “no one need go.” The perfect infinitive is appropriate when speaking of the past: “no one need have gone.”

Which brings us back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that passage, Stowe is describing something in the past—a cake baked and cooling and waiting to be served. So we would expect to find “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need have been ashamed.” In the passage as she wrote it, “need to have been ashamed,” the “to” is extraneous.

Is Stowe grammatically out of bounds here? Yes. She’s blending two different forms of “need”: the one that’s a main verb (as in “no one needs to have been”) and the one that’s a modal auxiliary (as in “no one need have been”). However the misuse is understandable.

The truth is that the modal use of “need” is rare in American English, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

Another source, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al., says the modal “need” is rare in both varieties of English, though “rarer” in the US than in the UK.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that writers sometimes confuse the two forms of “need”—the main verb and the modal. Here’s how the two differ.

  • As a main verb, “need” is inflected—that is, it changes according to its subject and tense. So “-s” is added in the third-person singular present (“no one needs”) and “-ed” in the simple past (“no one needed”). But the modal “need” is uninflected; it’s always “need.”
  • As a main verb, “need” can have a direct object, such as a noun (“he needs coffee”), a “to” infinitive (“she needs to leave”), or sometimes a gerund (“his shirt needs ironing”). But as a modal, “need” can’t have a direct object; what follows is always a main verb in the bare infinitive (“she need not leave”).
  • As a main verb, “need” can be used with auxiliary forms of “do” (“he doesn’t need coffee,” “did she need to leave?”). But the modal “need” cannot.
  • When it’s the main verb, “need” can be used in any kind of clause—whether statement or question, negative or positive. But the modal is used only in negative statements or in questions. As the Cambridge Grammar puts it, the modal “need” is “restricted to non-affirmative contexts” (the Comprehensive Grammar calls them “nonassertive contexts”).

In those first three respects—verb agreement, complements, and use with “do”—the modal “need” behaves just like “must,” “should,” and the other common modals. But in that last respect—its occurrence only in negatives and questions—“need” is unlike them. Here’s how it works.

Used negatively, it expresses non-necessity or non-obligation, as in “she need not come” … “he needn’t leave” … “nobody need go hungry.” (Or, in reference to the past: “she need not have come” … “he needn’t have left” … “nobody need have gone hungry.”)

Used in questions, it expresses doubt about necessity or obligation: “need she come?” … “need he leave?” … “need anyone go hungry?” (Or, in reference to the past: “need she have come?” … “need he have left?” … “need anyone have gone hungry?”)

Less frequently, the modal “need” is also used in semi-negative statements, those that include “hardly” or “only” or some other negative implication. Examples: “she need hardly speak” … “he need only ask” … “your dad need never know” … “the test is longer than it need be.” (Or, in the past: “she need hardly have spoken” … “he need only have asked” … “your dad need never have known” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”)

You can see why the differing forms of “need” can pose a challenge, especially for speakers who don’t customarily use the modal. And after all, aside from stylistic preferences there’s no pressing need to use the modal here.

For instance, take the sample clause above, the one about the excessively long test. This is how the same thought can be expressed in standard English in different ways.

With “need” as modal: “the test is longer than it need be” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”

With “need” as main verb: “the test is longer than it needs to be” … “the test was longer than it needed to be.”

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