"Needs" Needs More Words

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn about writing was brevity. “Short writing is sharp, smart writing.” Use as few words as possible to convey your meaning, then edit again, because it’s still too many.

I still don’t do it well.

Writers cut unnecessary words to communicate their message with a concise yet powerful style. But sometimes people cut words a sentence requires.

There’s a structure I hear often lately which makes my inner Grammar Nazi rage:

“some (noun) needs (verb)-ed.”

What’s wrong with this? Why make an issue of it?

It’s missing two key words.

I think of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (apologies to the Bard):

To be, or not to be? There is no question!
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous grammar failures, or to take arms against a sea of errors, and by opposing, end them! To correct, to edit! And by an edit to say we end the heartache, and the thousand grammatical shocks that readers are heir to. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished to correct, to edit. To edit, perchance to post! Ay, there’s the rub, for what posts may come once we have shuffled off this rough draft must give us pause…

Alas, poor Eoric, I knew him well.  HE MADE GRAMMAR ERRORS!
Alas, poor Eoric, I knew him well.

A (noun) needs TO BE (verb)-ed. Or a (noun) needs (verb)-ing. Perhaps that distinction is where the trouble lies. “Needs” is actually the verb in any such sentence. And thus the action needed, though based on a verb, becomes a noun-form used as an instance of the verb being done.

The car needs cleaned is wrong, because you can’t have a “cleaned.”

The car needs to be cleaned. Now we are clearly stating that an instance of an action should be completed upon the noun in question.

The car needs cleaning. This is another way of saying an action must take place. You can have a “cleaning,” and either a single instance or ongoing basis is assumed in this structure. Even this feels like a violation of strict grammar, but it doesn’t have the same egregious quality as “needs (verb)-ed.”

For once, here’s a case where you can keep those extra words. Your inner editor may feel there’s nothing wrong with it. But your actual editor–and readers–will appreciate the clarity.

And that’s something all good writing needs.

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