QUESTION: I know I can say a house needs painting, but why can’t I say the house needs being painted?
ANSWER: It’s not always easy to give a satisfactory answer to grammar questions. Sometimes a standard pattern simply must be followed, no exceptions. You learn the acceptable pattern, and like a dutiful soldier you follow it.
But I understand the minds of inquisitive learners who want to dig beyond the whats and wrestle with the whys. For the student who recently asked me this question and for other grammar-digging adventurers, I’ll try to offer fuller answer than just, “Because that’s the rule.”
Need likes to wear more than one hat. Not only can be it be a noun or a verb, but as a verb, we can use it different ways. Americans most often use need as a transitive verb with the object being a noun or an infinitive:
I need help.
I need a good grammar resource.
I need to understand.
I need to find answers.
But the on a rare occasion, we’ll also use need like a modal verb:
Need I say more? (Must I say anything more?)
You needn’t worry. (You mustn’t worry.)
Beyond those two common expressions, Americans tend to find other alternatives to using need as a modal, especially in conversation.
Then there are the structures where need helps us express a necessity or obligation that is likely someone else’s responsibility other than the speaker’s:
The house needs painting.
The house needs to be painted.
The house needs painted.
I see the -ing form listed more often than the passive infinitive when I look for examples in dictionaries, but I would teach both as widely accepted forms. The last form with only a past participle is recognized as either nonstandard or standard only in some dialects. In any case, the meaning is basically the same in all three statements: Someone needs to paint the house at some point.
Some have searched fruitlessly for a distinction between needs doing and needs to be done. Does one sound more urgent? Does one imply the responsibility may fall to the speaker? Personally, I don’t think there’s enough of a difference to affect my word choice. I do, however, use the passive infinitive more than the -ing form. Maybe that’s an American preference.
Preference seems to play a role with terminology, too. I’ve observed disagreement over that -ing form after need. Both the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary state the pattern as verb + present participle. In contrast, Yale University identifies the -ing form as a gerund/verbal noun. BBC avoids the controversy by calling it a verb with an -ing ending. I’m inclined to join the camp at Yale. If the -ing form behaves more like a noun, then I don’t recognize the word as a participle. Of course, there’s another discussion to have at some point about gerunds vs. verbal nouns, but the fact is that in the construction with need, we can use determiners and adjectives before the -ing form:
Those clothes need a good washing.
The house needs a thorough cleaning.
We don’t have to agree at this moment on whether that -ing form is a gerund or a verbal noun, but in my mind, it’s clearly not a participle.
Again, whichever construction you use (needs doing, needs to be done, needs done), the meaning is the same. To be done is passive according to its form (be + past participle), but they all shift the focus to the receiver of the action and none of them commit to naming the agent. Because needs doing already conveys a passive meaning, there’s no need to convert its form into needs being done.
In short, I’d recommend that students learn needs doing and needs to be done as synonymous constructions. Needs done is sometimes heard, but isn’t as widely accepted. The alternatives are to switch to the transitive verb:
Someone needs to paint the house.
Someone needs to wash those clothes.
Or combine the transitive verb need with a causative verb:
I need to have someone paint the house.
I need to get someone to paint the house.
Or use only a causative verb:
I need to get the house painted
I hope this more thorough answer pleases the grammar-hungry minds out there.
Featured photo by qimono. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/question-mark-pile-question-mark-1495858/.