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What happened to ‘to be’? A Midwestern rebel against Shakespeare

By Curtis Honeycutt

The following is a scenario based on real events. Any names have been changed to avoid embarrassment and grammar-shaming.

My friend, Ann, drives a van. Ann drives a tan van, and she’s married to Stan, but this story isn’t about him. It’s about Ann and her tan van. One day, Ann’s tan van was uncommonly tawny in its hue because, you see, it was dirty. “My van needs washed,” surmised Ann.

As soon as Ann said this, my ears felt as if they were going to explode. I resisted the urge to correct her, because we were with a group of people, and I try to avoid correcting people’s grammar in public.

If Prince Hamlet wondered “To be, or not to be, that is the question,” then my question is: what happened to ‘to be’? You see, Ann’s tan van needed to be washed. It didn’t “need washed,” as she declared. In this case, “washed” is what’s considered a passive participle, and it requires the infinitive phrase “to be” in order to pass grammar muster.

I know this omission of “to be” doesn’t only happen in Indiana; this may very well be a Midwestern grammar faux pas. I’m interested to see if readers from outside the Midwest hear this ear-splitting construction. If not, send me an email with your regional grammar issue.

Besides “need,” I’ve also heard this phraseology used with the words “want” and “like.” For instance: My pet bear wants scratched. My son likes fed multiple times per day. As I type this, my word processor’s squiggly red line is having a field day. My pet bear wants to be scratched. My son likes to be fed multiple times per day.

I’m not sure what caused the omission of “to be.” Maybe high school students don’t appreciate being forced to read Shakespeare in their English classes, so they’ve begun a rebellion and have answered Prince Hamlet with a resounding “not to be.”

When Shakespeare wrote his plays, he wrote many of his jokes for the broadest audience possible. Now his stuff is considered “classic” and “timeless.” Perhaps there’s hope for my writing to stand the test of time after all. Of course, much of it still needs to be edited.

— Curtis Honeycutt is an award-winning syndicated humor writer. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.

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