I recently told a Californian. “If it needs changed, I’ll let you know.” He asked where I was from. Until that moment, I had no idea that “needs changed” is a regionalism. Californians are taught to say “needs to be changed” or “needs changing.” This really took me aback because I’ve had a number of jobs in which I was paid to proofread. I know my grammar skills are well above average. Naturally, I had to find out whether my usage was incorrect or merely regional. I also wanted to know if it was truly a less common usage than the California version (it is).
I found a helpful MetaFilter thread which informed me that (a) there’s no hard and fast answer to whether “needs changed” is grammatically incorrect and (2) wow, people can be such assholes about linguistic constructions that get on their nerves. If you’re curious, the best explanation of where this usage came from – and why it can’t logically be considered incorrect – is here. But let’s get back to the issue of people being assholes, because that’s where a privilege issue comes into play:
I’m not a linguist, but “wrong” is probably the wrong term to use here. The construction is definitely nonstandard (outside of a certain region), so if you want to scare people away from using it, then you can legitimately claim that much – and people may naturally have an interest in not offending their interlocutors’ aesthetic sensibilities (witness the opprobrium manifested in this thread). Based on my experience living in Pittsburgh, it’s not quite as much of a class marker as you might think – it’s a regional marker, obviously, but I’ve been surprised at the number of professionals (lawyers and the like) who use the construction not only in speaking, but also in written work sometimes.
But, I mean, is it “wrong”? I don’t know – are you an American? If so, have you ever “agreed to a contract” with someone? Is an Englishman entitled to call that wrong, since one doesn’t “agree to” a contract, one simply “agrees a contract”? Or do you frequently use the word “gotten,” a past participle? That word is practically unknown in British English, but is pretty common in American English. Think about these kinds of differences between dialects and communities of speakers of a language before deciding to call something “wrong” or not.
Who’s the final authority on a language as common as English, which has been evolving separately on several different continents for hundreds of years? Until recently, London thought they should be – at least for the UK. All their TV shows not only used London grammar (sometimes including, for color, the class marker that is Cockney slang), but also London accents (the Cockney accent was usually reserved for criminals and lovable scamps). In recent years, the BBC has realized this is pure elitist crap, and they should be celebrating the various English accents instead of trying to make them all conform to the capital city’s idea of proper speech.
But Los Angeles hasn’t gotten it yet. Los Angeles has been the dominant representative of American English since TV began. Oh, sure, occasionally you hear a bad fake southern accent (there have been possibly a handful of authentic ones, ever, to my ear) or a Bronx accent or African American Vernacular – but like Cockney, they’re reserved for people who aren’t, well, “typical Americans” (read: “white middle class Californians”). Any “typical American” character is meant to speak with a Los Angeles accent. Southern actors must master the accent or satisfy themselves with playing southern stereotypes (stupid people, “belles” and hateful bigots, as if we don’t have all three of those in generous supply in every populated section of the US). Black actors who didn’t grow up speaking the African American vernacular may be expected to learn it for roles, since they can’t be cast as “typical Americans” anyway.
Los Angelenos and people who speak like them think they represent the majority, but that’s not true: they represent the dominant media force in the dispersal of American English. This is why I had to check on my “needs changed” usage to see if it was really an uncommon construction: if you live in California and get all your media from California, you have no idea what’s common in the rest of the country. But Los Angeles media sets the standards, so when people hear less common constructions – even obviously correct ones – they tend to correct you with Los Angeles speech as their yardstick. (By the way, “needs changing” or “the roof needs fixing” sounds strangely quaint and totally incorrect to my ears, but I try not to be an asshole of epic proportions about it.)
Los Angeles English is fine, but it is neither more correct nor more pleasing than other regional variants on the language – not even within the US. As the above commenter noted, the English say “I had got my package before I left” and Americans say “I had gotten…” When I was in school, kids who said “had got” were corrected. And yet, Americans routinely use “have got” as in “I’ve got high hopes.” The British more correctly say, “I’ve high hopes for you”, and that sounds odd to our ears. I’ve never yet met a grammar cop who didn’t say, “I’ve got a cold” or – even more bizarrely – “I’ve got to go.” What’s a to go, and where did you get it? Got means “obtained”, not “possession of.” “I’ve obtained a cold” sounds just fine, if a little formal, but if you’re an American, it should actually be “I’ve gotten a cold” if that’s what you mean.
And what about “pretty good”? Ironically, I see grammar cops use this one all the time – “this is a pretty good example of that horrible, vile construction that makes me cringe” – and what the hell does it mean? And how come it isn’t “what in hell?” Meanwhile, English desperately needs a word for “you [plural]”, which is why regions keep making up their own. I think “y’all” is a good one, but it will never become “standard English” because the Los Angeles media has made it emblematic of some imaginary Dueling Banjos land where everyone’s inbred, stupid and uninformed about hygeine.
See why this is ridiculous? English is the confused child of about six parents, none of whom could stand one another. It’s amazing the language works at all.
But more to the point, it takes a lot of entitlement to think there is one correct English when English is spoken as a primary language throughout the US, most of Canada, the UK, Australia and a few other nations with histories of English-speaking imperialism. And yet, we’ve all been trained from birth to recognize as “fact” that Los Angeles English is how Americans (should) sound and speak, to think of the solitary London accent as the English accent, etc. Why? Because dialects are markers of class. Because Los Angeles speakers have “no accent” and everyone else in the US has “an accent.” Los Angeles determines the standards. They say “needs to be changed”, so of course people go forth and act like total douchebags without even realizing it when their delicate ears are assaulted by a different construction. It never even occurs to them that both constructions might be equally valid.
Nor does it occur to them that even if one construction is less correct than others, or not correct at all, it might still have value as an expression of a different region and worldview. The Boston Globe sums it up nicely: “So if you think Pittsburgh’s grammar needs corrected, consider the alternative: Maybe the majority’s attitude needs adjusted.”
Yes, the majority’s attitude frequently needs changed.