Friday, January 3, 2014

This Syntax Needs Studied

A few weeks ago, my co-teacher asked me a question about English grammar. This happens several times a week, but around final exam period the questions came more frequently. This time, she asked if "The car needs being washed" was an acceptable grammatical construction (as a variant of the standard "needs to be washed").

As far as I'm aware, no native speaker of American English will say that, but her question did bring up the issue of the interesting "needs washed" construction that has some syntacticians scratching their heads. In some parts of the Midwestern United States, notably western Pennsylvania, the infinitive "to be" will be left out of an utterance following the modal verb "need" and sometimes "like" or "want", and only the passive particle ("washed") is said. Thus, you may sometimes hear, "The car needs washed."

Here is an article from Grammar Girl about the construction, and here is one from the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. According to their research, the "needs washed" construction is apparently derived from patterns in Scottish and/or Irish. The basic conclusion is that it is part of the regional dialect, and furthermore, it is used widely enough that many people actually aren't aware that it is considered incorrect by standard grammars.

My co-teacher was intrigued by the idea that a small population would be oblivious to what to her was clearly a gross syntactic error in their everyday speech. She asked me, "So is it wrong?" I hesitated. If there's anything I've learned from my linguistics courses, it's that we are not to pass judgment on the way humans communicate. A linguist's job is to study language and try to understand the reason why something is said a certain way, not impose any rules determining what is or is not correct. So I told her, "No, I wouldn't say it's wrong. It's merely uncommon. It's not something I would ever say or even teach, but... it's not wrong." There are, I added, many Englishes.

She chuckled and told me about how when she was being trained as an English teacher, there was a large reference book of English grammar that all teachers were expected to consider the final authority on issues such as this. "It's like our Bible for English grammar," she said. But this tome never mentioned anything about "needs washed". "It seems," she continued, "that Americans are very lenient about grammar and don't like to say that something is wrong."

Is that an appropriate generalization? Well, it's true that there's no Academy of English (either in the US or the UK), nothing on par with the illustrious (and/or stuffy) Académie française to dictate what does or does not fly in our language. But there are plenty of American language enthusiasts who find it perfectly acceptable -- if not necessary -- to point out and fix every grammatical error they spot. They are the ones who endeavor to overhaul and improve grammar education in English classrooms and lament the ever-quickening changes to English such as "I wish you would've told me" (gah!) and "a historical event" and "it was funner last time" and "let's dialogue about it" and "the reason is because" and "ain't" (gah!).

You can probably tell that some of these things still bother me. The grammar nut in me -- the linguistic prescriptivist who used to correct my friends' utterances mid-sentence (so rude!) -- has refused to go quietly. It's especially difficult for me as an English teacher to efficiently triage my students' mistakes: which ones do I correct and reinforce? What do I let slide? What do I praise as linguistic creativity and what is just plain wrong?

At least in one sense, I feel fortunate that my co-teacher has me pegged as a grammatically lax American (if this is a thing), because it means that the descriptive linguist in me is finally starting to show his stripes. My hope is that the two sides will work together in my classroom, not against each other, so that my students will be allowed complete freedom of expression while still learning the traditional rules.

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