"Projects we need financed": Pittsburghian?

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My Wall Street Journal column this week looks at the history of the word rider, inspired by Frances McDormand's cryptic use of the phrase "inclusion rider" at the end of her acceptance speech at the Oscars on Sunday, after she won the Best Actress award for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Link to WSJ column here — if paywalled, follow my Twitter link here.) But just before she got to "inclusion rider," McDormand offered another linguistically intriguing nugget. Here's how the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported it:

On Sunday, she asked all of the women nominees in Hollywood's Dolby Theatre to stand and reminded them to tell their stories.
Laughing, she said in the Pittsburgh vernacular, "Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed." 

You can hear the relevant bit at the end of this clip.

Here's the isolated audio.

The Post-Gazette referred to McDormand's "Pittsburgh vernacular" because she went to high school in Monessen, Pennsylvania, just south of Pittsburgh. The implication here is that by referring to "projects we need financed," McDormand was using the "needs washed" (or "need V-en") construction common to the Pittsburgh region, likely derived from similar Scots usage. I've talked about the construction on Language Log a few times:

For more details, see the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project's page on "needs washed."

But hang on a second. Is this really like "The car needs washed"? McDormand said "We all have … projects we need financed." So the noun phrase "projects [that] we need ___ financed" (with an object gap in the relative clause) corresponds to the full clause "We need projects financed." That strikes me as standard (not dialectal) English, akin to everyday expressions like "I need this taken care of" — or, to make it match what McDormand said, "This is something [that] I need ___ taken care of." That's not the same as the Pittsburgh-style way of saying it: "This needs taken care of."

When John Kasich (who grew up in Allegheny County, Pa.) said "The bill needs fixed," that was notable, but it wouldn't have sounded so Pittsburghian if he had said "This is a bill we need fixed." Likewise, if McDormand had said "Our projects need financed," that would have been a clear-cut example of the "needs washed" construction. [As Nick Fleisher points out in the comments, "projects that need financed" would also fit the construction.] But based on what she actually said, I think the Post-Gazette was a bit too quick to claim that McDormand was using "the Pittsburgh vernacular." I can understand why hearing "need financed" might have caught the attention of Yinzers, but not every combination of need with a past participle is actually a Yinzerism.

(Hat tip, Andrew Weintraub.)


  1. Ray said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 8:07 pm

    was it just me or did anyone else think she said "inclusion writer"? (which, when you think about it, is where it all begins, long before a cast is assembled.)

  2. Aaron Toivo said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 8:12 pm

    To me the essence of the "needs washed" construction is that it fills in what in standard English is a gap:

    He needs these dishes to be washed.
    These dishes need to be washed.
    He needs these dishes washed.
    *These dishes need washed.

    I need this food to be eaten.
    This food needs to be eaten.
    I need this food eaten.
    *This food needs eaten.

    That is, in standard English we can drop the "to be", or we can drop the human subject and ascribe the need to the thing discussed, but normally not both.

  3. Daniel Midgley said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 8:19 pm

    Good catch. I agree — I don't think this is the same as PA "needs V-en". I'm from the Pacific NW, and this kind of construction seems natural to me, as in:

    "I want this report finished."

    and transformed:

    "Here's a report I want finished." or
    "There are reports I want finished."

  4. Nick Fleisher said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

    Yep: “projects that need financed” would be the need-passive here.

  5. DejaKay said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 9:05 pm

    Is the phrase "inclusion rider" cryptic? Maybe it is less well known in academia, but I think rider (meaning a demand for something to be supplied as a condition for hiring a performer) is a familiar term for anyone who follows celebrity gossip or rock music coverage. Bizarre or unreasonable riders are often highlighted in the media eg here: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.ok.co.uk/celebrity-feature/472054/13-most-outrageous-celebrity-riders/amp
    or here:

    Or is "inclusion" the word causing the problem?

  6. Michael Watts said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 12:12 am

    What everybody else says — "projects [that] we need financed" is fully standard, and totally unrelated to "these projects need financed", which isn't.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 1:21 am

    I was expecting the intended contrast to be between "needs *-ed" and "needs *-ing", the latter being not uncommon in the U.K. but almost certainly non-standard. When that contrast was not made, I was confused, as the "needs -ed" as used by the speaker seemed completely standard to me. Incidentally, what a delight to see that the word "actress" is alive and well, at least in the U.S.A — in the U.K., the Guardian (perhaps not alone) appears to believe that all actresses (even porn actresses) are now actors, a usage that I personally find intensely annoying and arguably extremely patronising.

  8. rosie said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 3:33 am

    @Aaron Toivo Standard English doesn't have a gap: the following are grammatical:

    These dishes need washing.
    This food needs eating.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 8:43 am

    If I'm not mistaken, the "needs washed" construction is considered standard in Scotland.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 9:25 am

    I grew up in Wisconsin and have lived in Massachusetts for more than 50 years. This constructiion doesn't seem at all unusual to me.

    I think maybe some Pittsburghians are a bit too self-conscious about the way they speak.

  11. Ben Orsatti said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 10:12 am

    Comment from lifelong Pittsburgher here.

    I found this particularly interesting after having watched the video, because it had never occurred to me that Frances McDormand was, in fact, from Pittsburgh. There isn't anything that jumps out at me as being distinctively "Pittsburgh", topolectically speaking. Her accent strikes me as being more Midwestern, like what you might hear in western Ohio and beyond.

    For reference as to what I mean by "Pittsburgh", think Michael Keaton, or Fred (Mister) Rogers, or Marc Cuban ("The speedy brahn fawks jumps up o'er də' łazy dawg dahn 'ehr, n'nat". "The dishes need woorshed").

    It's mostly in the vowels, I think. I never thought that I had an "accent" myself until I came to Penn to study as an undergraduate, and found that I had some difficulty making myself understood to native Philadelphians, with their "wooder", and whatnot. (!) On one occasion, I was referring to to a certain piece of living room furniture as a "cahch", which flummoxed my interlocutor, who would have expected to have heard "sofa", or, at least, "cowch".

    And yes, we are a bit self-conscious and defensive. I think it ultimately goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 11:59 am

    Ben Orsatti: Beside the vowels, the thing that always jumped out at me when visiting Pittsburgh (I have relatives there) is the descending intonation in questions. "Dja see the Stillers game, Bawb?" where the italics mark the highest pitch.

    (Of course it's an invented example. There's no need to ask a Pittsburgher whether they saw the Steelers game.)

  13. Flourish Klink said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

    I hate to be a naysayer, but I would be shocked if "projects we need financed" is a Pittsburghism – if it is, it is a Pittsburghism that has totally taken over LA. "I have a project I need financed" seems absolutely normal to me, something I would hear in my day job in the entertainment industry all the time.

    I have no deeper linguistic analysis to offer, only that if Frances McDormand's usage is strange, it's more likely to come from entertainment industry talk than from Pittsburgh, I think!

  14. Ben Orsatti said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

    Jerry Friedman: Yikes, you're absolutely right! (http://psych440.blogspot.com/2014/04/mythbusting-pennsylvania-question.html). The Webs seem to think that it comes via Pennsylvania Dutch, but, considering the history of Western Pennsylvania, I wonder if there's not a Scotch-Irish influence somewhere in there as well.

    It's an interesting observation; the question intonation thing is something that's so ubiquitous, that I would never think to notice it. It transcends neighborhoods and class. That is to say, while you wouldn't expect to hear "yinz" or "yunz" bantered about at a Sewickley Hights tea party, we all do tend to intone questions in more or less exactly the same way. Carries over into parts of West Virginia and Ohio too.

  15. Jonathan said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    @DejaKay: As a single data point, I'll report that I didn't immediately know what it meant when I first heard it, and yes, 'inclusion' was the word that slowed me up, as I knew all about Van Halen's green M&M rider. It's probably a generational thing – I'm in my 50s – and after thinking about it I realized that I grew up with the word 'diversity' playing much the same role as 'inclusion' does in that phrase, and if someone had said 'diversity rider' I would have gotten it immediately.

    I could see an argument pointing out the different connotations of the two words, but I think it's more of an instance of the default word for something changing. It reminds me of how the phrase that I was used to, "is a bad visual", started to be replaced with the phrase "is bad optics". Initially my mind protested that 'bad optics" should be referring to a camera lens made from cheap glass but I realized that it's just the phrase we use now to describe something that looks bad.

  16. Chandra said,

    March 9, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

    Two observations:

    -As a Canadian, "projects we need financed" is perfectly grammatical to me.
    -My partner is from the Philadelphia area and she uses the "needs V-ed" construction, so I don't think that usage is limited to Pittsburgh.

  17. John Walden said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 3:10 am

    Like others I find "We need it done" unremarkable but "It needs done" as a version of "It needs doing" is outside any of my 'lects.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 8:26 am

    What kind of German has falling intonation in questions?

  19. Ellen K. said,

    March 10, 2018 @ 12:10 pm

    John Walden wrote:Like others I find "We need it done" unremarkable but "It needs done" as a version of "It needs doing" is outside any of my 'lects.

    I find that interesting because for me (middle of the U.S.) I would rate "It needs done" and "It needs doing" pretty equally. Both are grammatical, but not something used in formal language.

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