Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) has posted a podcast today about the "needs washed" regionalism, which is mostly associated with the North Midland dialect region of the U.S. Though her goal is to provide prescriptive advice about when it's appropriate to use the "need + V-en" construction, she has conducted some nice data collection from her readers and has also consulted such resources as the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project and relevant Language Log posts.
On its "needs washed" page, the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project (check it out if you haven't seen it already) provides a map with attestations of the "need + V-en" construction from scholarly surveys.
Fogarty asked her extensive readership if they had heard of "needs washed" and constructed her own map:
Fogarty notes that even though usage clusters in the North Midland region (with Pittsburgh as the "epicenter"), there are many outliers in places like southern Oregon and southern Idaho. We should be a bit careful with this kind of informal self-report survey, of course, since usage perceptions might be a bit skewed for various reasons. Neal Whitman pointed out on the American Dialect Society mailing list that a few commenters on the Grammar Girl Facebook page asked "Does 'needs washing' count?" — suggesting that many data points may in fact be false positives.
And speaking of misperceptions, discussion of the Grammar Girl survey on ADS-L led Jonathan Lighter (of Historical Dictionary of American Slang fame) to observe that President Obama, in his Labor Day speech, had said that much of America's infrastructure "needs rebuilt." Lighter wondered if this was "a Presidential first." I was curious about this, since it would indeed be unusual to hear the President utter "need + V-en" in a public speech. (It was a noteworthy moment last spring when Jack Davis, a Pittsburgh native running for Congress in upstate New York, threatened a staffer of one of his opponents with "You want punched out?")
It turns out Obama didn't in fact say "need(s) rebuilt," but it's easy to hear why it could have been perceived that way. Here is the speech, with the part in question coming at about 10:50:
Obama's line, as reflected in the official transcript, was actually:
We've got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding.
…but "rebuilding" might be better transcribed as "rebuildin'" or "rebuild'n." As elsewhere in the speech, Obama deploys so-called "g-dropping" (actually the substitution of coronal nasal [n] for velar nasal [ŋ] in the inflectional suffix -ing). Obama's g-dropping here accords with what Mark Liberman identified as "empathetic -in'," the use of dropped g's for the rhetorical effect of forming solidarity with the audience and "folksifying" the subject matter. In this particular instance, the final syllable is heavily reduced, sounding a bit like a syllabic [n] appended to the end of "rebuild." Thus it's not a stretch to hear the spoken word as "rebuilt."
The Wall Street Journal political reporter Naftali Bendavid evidently heard "rebuilt" as well, but in quoting Obama's speech he (or his editors) "corrected" the sentence, thus avoiding the non-standard "need + V-en" construction:
"We've got roads and bridges across this country that need to be rebuilt," Mr. Obama said.
So, despite the mishearings, this appears to be a false alarm — while g-dropping is an acceptable dialectal variation in folksy political talk, "need + V-en" may still be beyond the pale.