To be, or not to be?
That is the question at the heart of this post. Easy, Hamlet, this isn’t a matter of life or death, but it is one that I’ve spent some time pondering.
What I’m getting at is the use of the verb form “to be” – or the non-use of it, as it were.
Exhibit A: This sign for Capital City Car Wash:
“Does your car need detailed.”
I can excuse the punctuation oversight; I presume a question mark, although it could be read as clairvoyant exclamation. As in, Your car is really dirty. Either way, looking at the sign, I strain as through a downpour and wonder: What happened to the infinitive “to be”?
Of course, this is Pennsylvania, where these types of constructions rain down fairly often:
What we really need is a linking verb. Does your car need “to be” detailed?
Moving to central Pennsylvania in 1991 exposed me to a number of new things, among them: filling (instead of the stuffing with which I grew up in Maine), fasnachts, and “needs” this or that.
Even without knowing the origin of the “needs” construction, it just always sounded wrong to me. But is it?
Yes and no, according to the experts.
First, what we have here is the “infinitival copula deletion,” which has nothing to do with the director of “The Godfather” movies. “To be” is a copula, or linking verb, in its infinitive form.
Hence, not using it is a deletion. Others have harsher word choices for this practice: “illegitimate usage,” “nonstandard,” “wrong” and even “not normal,” according to articles I found in the Boston Globe (from 2007) and on the Grammar Girl website (2011).
The credit/blame goes to Scots-Irish immigrants to southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond – in what they alternately call the “Midland dialect area” or “North Midland region” – for bringing this language construction with them.
“Pittsburgh is the epicenter of ‘needs washed’ kind of sentences, but they’re also very common throughout Pennsylvania, and roughly as far west as Iowa, as far North as southern Michigan, and as far south as northern West Virginia,” wrote Mignon Fogarty, on “Grammar Girl.”
Certainly, I’ve heard enough educated people use “needs fixed” or a variation thereof that I don’t think it’s a reflection of one’s intelligence. They’ve probably heard it all of their lives; it sounds correct to them. For a car wash, there even might be some benefit to coming across as folksy and charming (and to saving a few letters).
“The bottom line is that whether it’s considered wrong depends on who’s listening,” Fogarty argued. “When I have to make a decision about something like this, I use what I call the cover-letter test. Would I feel uncomfortable telling people to use this type of sentence in a cover letter when they are applying for a job?”
An applicant might get away with using “needs washed” when seeking a job with a local employer, Fogarty said. But a national or international company might think the job seeker is using improper English.
So before you delete your infinitival copula, ask yourself: Do you need employed?