Why I Don’t Beat Myself Up over My Regionalisms

If you’ve never heard someone say, the dishes need washed or the laundry needs done, then you clearly haven’t spent enough time in the American Midwest. But before you declare this oddity just plain wrong—hear me out.


Boyfriend: 1, Copyeditor: 0

After a hard day at the office picking apart the English language, I came home to a sink full of dirty dishes and promptly rolled up my sleeves. My boyfriend, who’s heard me complain about cleaning up a thousand times, said, “Why are you doing the dishes? Why don’t you just relax?”

“Because they need done,” I snapped.

He came up behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Sweetie, they need doing.”

I shrugged off his comment, intent on scrubbing tomato sauce off a plate.

“I hate to break it to you,” he insisted, “but you say it all the time. The right way to say it is: the dishes need doingnot done.”

As I stood dumbfounded, my hands in soapy water and my face beet red, I had to admit that I’d made a mistake. Worse, it dawned on me that I’d been making that mistake for some time now—in fact, I’d been making it my whole life!

Determined to find out where it came from, I called my mother and accused her flat out, “You taught me to say needs done!”

“I did not,” she said, defending her motherhood.

“You did, too! Where else would I get it from?” I demanded. “Is it some kind of Midwestern thing?” While both my parents are from central Illinois, I was born and raised in British Columbia. As far as I was concerned, my English was as clean as the queen’s.

“Maybe,” she said sheepishly. “I’ve never noticed. Maybe I do say that.”

Down but not out

The reason my mother never noticed it before—and why I hadn’t either—is that it’s so common in the area linguists call the North Midland region that hardly anyone thinks it’s wrong. From Pittsburgh to St. Louis, common parlance has it that: the car needs washed, the floor needs swept, and the dog needs fed.

After a little Internet digging, I discovered that needs done and needs washed are Scotch-Irish in origin. According to Grammar Girl , the Scots-Irish once said that their horses needed washed, but after much research she still wasn’t able to say why.

While I would never write I’ll do whatever needs done in an email to my boss, I’m not quite ready to eradicate this regional gem from my grammatical template. Like an old family photo, needs done reminds me of my roots.


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