"You want punched out?"

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Today's political buzz is all about the win by Democrat Kathy Hochul in New York's 26th congressional district, encompassing suburbs northeast of Buffalo and west of Rochester. National issues, particularly the debate over Medicare, played a big part in the race, but local factors were key as well, with the Republican candidate, Jane Corwin, losing votes to Jack Davis, a third-party spoiler running on the Tea Party line. Hochul was helped by squabbles between the Corwin and Davis campaigns, most notably a confrontation between Davis and Corwin's chief of staff outside a veteran's event a couple of weeks ago. The video of the confrontation memorably featured Jack Davis saying, "You want punched out?"

When the video appeared on the Talking Points Memo site, "you want punched out" was appended with a "sic." But this construction, "want + V-en" (where V-en represents a past-participial form of a verb) is typical in much of the North Midland dialect region, as discussed by Thomas E. Murray and Beth Lee Simon in their article "Want + Past Participle in American English" (American Speech, Vol. 74, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 140-164). This article followed up on their research into another notable North Midland pattern, "need + V-en" (as in "the car needs washed").

Murray and Simon combine older evidence from dialect surveys with their own results to plot a map of all of the positive attestations of "want + V-en":

There are some attestations of the construction in the southwestern corner of New York State, along the New York-Pennsylvania border, but nothing as far north as the Buffalo suburbs where Jack Davis lives. It turns out, however, that Davis has roots in western Pennsylvania, where "want + V-en" (like "need + V-en")  is common. According to his campaign bio, Davis's family moved from Pittsburgh to Buffalo when he was a child. So, in this pugnacious moment caught on video, Davis evidently betrayed his Pittsburgh upbringing. Perhaps the exit polls from yesterday's election can tell us what effect this dialectal display had on the voters.

[On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Matt Gordon points to further reading on "want + V-en": "There's a survey of work in Murray and Simon's chapter in the collection they edited, Language Variation and Change in the American Midland (2006, J. Benjamins). Erica Benson discusses the probably related grammatical construction of 'want + prep. adverb' (e.g. we want off) in a Journal of English Linguistics piece from 2009. This usage is reported to be more acceptable in the northern dialect region."]


  1. nemryn said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    Huh. I've always read that construction as a quotation or cite, rather than a regional dialect. "You want (something that could be described as) 'punched out'?"

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    It seems to me that the expression elides "to be", as in You want [to be] punched out? I don't know that it is less sensible than V-ing forms also in use, but it jars.

  3. JR said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    Hmmm, as a native Cleveland speaker, I've never heard this, even though the map shows Cleveland to be right smack in the middle of it. Or maybe I'm reading the map incorrectly? Then again, I've never heard the Northern Cities Vowel Shift either, except for on liguistics websites…

  4. Rob said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    It's also common in Scots, F

  5. Rob Miller said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    What I assume is a similar construction is also common in Scots, FWIW — e.g. 'my hair needs washed', 'do you want fed', etc.

  6. Melissa Dow said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    I've noticed it quite a bit up here in Northern Idaho, actually. It's more prevalent among the college and high school students than older adults, if my skewed observations are to be trusted. I hear my sister and her friends say things like "the laundry needs done" or "the grass needs mowed" on a pretty regular basis.

  7. @boris_tweets said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

    Great story, Ben, but how would you translate it in French, since French speakers "lack the concept of dialect" (http://bit.ly/no-dialect)? Wait a minute… http://bit.ly/yes-dialect

  8. Boris said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    I don't have enough context from the clip, but it could be "You want Punched Out? I'll give you Punched Out" with the second part omitted. For this to work in my dialect, the reporter would have used "punched out" before the clip, for example "Why do your opponents think they have been punched out by you?". Alternatively, the phrase could have been on his mind because it would have been previously used in the media about him.

    North Jersey here, so not in one of the areas marked on the map.

  9. cameron said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    As others have already pointed out, this is a common Scottish usage, and I've heard it cited as an example of Scots/Irish influence on Western PA dialect. And I think "needs washed" – especially with washed pronounced as "worshed" – is the expression that I've most often heard cited as an example of the usage.

  10. Rick Sprague said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    At first, I was surprised that this was said around Buffalo, because I grew up not that far east of there (Syracuse area) and never heard it until my mid 30s, after living in central VA for 20 years. I learned it (as need + V-en first) from my current life-partner, who grew up in east central PA. Since then, I've heard it numerous times from other people, presumably immigrants or visitors to VA if the map is accurate.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    @JR: When I visit Cleveland, where I grew up, I hear lots and lots of NCVS.

    I don't recall this needs washed, though. That's a Pittsburghism. (Actually, I don't remember it from many childhood visits to Pittsburgh, but a co-worker from the Texas Panhandle says it.)

  12. notrequired said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

    To me it sounds like he said: "You wanna punch it out?"

    [(myl) It doesn't sound that way to me — and for those who can read spectrograms, it doesn't look that way either:

    If there's interest, maybe I'll explain the bands and blotches at some later time.]

  13. Josh said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    Interesting. My wife constructs sentences this way and I always found it odd. Never heard anybody else do it.
    The cat wants fed.
    The cat wants pet.

    She's from AZ, but her dad is originally from PA. Maybe it's a speech artifact that hung on from when he grew up there.

  14. Kathleen said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    I live in rural western PA, and I hear these constructions every day. The car needs washed, the laundry needs done, the cat wants petted, the paperwork needs signed. My favorite would have to be "the house needs redd up." [Translation: the house needs to be cleaned.] I don't know if I've heard these constructions in Cleveland, but I have certainly heard them in Youngstown, Ohio.

    When I first moved here (seven years ago) I found it terribly jarring. I haven't picked it up myself, but I barely notice it now.

  15. Chris Kern said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    I saw one AP article that quoted him as saying "do you want to punch it out", perhaps written by someone not familiar with Midwest dialect.

    Having lived most of my life in Indiana and Ohio, the construction seems normal to me (although I don't personally use it).

  16. Chris Kern said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

    Hold on a minute, after reading some more, I have to ask — are "I want off [the bus]" and "the cat wants in" really regional dialect? I guess having lived in the midwest it wouldn't be surprising if I had dialect forms in my speech but I never knew those were area-restricted, if they are.

    [(myl) The quote in Ben's post suggests that the "want in/off/out/on" construction is more widely accepted — but the map from Benson 2003, reproduced on her home page, gives it a distribution whose limits certainly surprise me:

    I grew up eastern Connecticut, far from any of the points on her map, and all of these examples seem competely normal (if informal) to me.]

  17. Pera said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    Constructions like "You want punched out?" are the default in the Philly area. If I heard someone insert the "to be," it would sound odd. But then, I come from an area where you can say, "The window's too shut," or "The milk is all" [meaning there's none left], and not have anyone bat an eye.

  18. seriously said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:26 pm

    When I first read the discussion of "the car needs washed" as dialect, I had to keep reading the article to find out exactly what dialect was being referred to! I grew up in north central W. Va. with relatives in Pittsburgh, and it sounded completely normal to me.

  19. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 25, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    Wow. I, too, am having a reality-shifting moment learning that "I want off the bus" and "the cat wants in" are regional dialect. That's…surprising.

  20. mollymooly said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 12:49 am

    I am familiar with "want out" and "want in" from film dialogue relating to criminal conspiracies, get-rich-quick schemes, etc; but not in more literal-spatial senses of "out"/"in".

  21. Peter G. Howland said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 3:24 am

    How is it that a speech construction is considered “normal” when it is overtly a non-standard regional dialect?

    [(myl) The word normal always has an (explicit or implicit) qualifier, "normal for ___". What's normal for a toddler is not what's normal for a 70-year-old; what's normal for a resident of Dallas is not what's normal for a Glaswegian or a Bostonian or a Philadelphian. Similarly, what sounds normal to someone from Madrid is not the same as what sounds normal to a Cuban or a Chilean. When various commenters on this post wrote things like "I grew up in north central W. Va. with relatives in Pittsburgh, and it sounded completely normal to me", they're explicitly delimiting a speech community whose norms they're discussing. Are you being willfully obtuse in order to make a point, or was this really not obvious to you?]

    One of my long-ago ex-wives (from the Salt Lake City area, in confirmation of the cluster shown on the Murray/Simon map) habitually used this construction:
    – The dishes need (to be) washed.
    – I want (to get) on the bus.
    – The laundry needs (to be) wrenched (rinsed).
    – You want (to go) out?
    …and so on.

    Although she had certain compensating and more-charming attributes, I assigned this non-grammatical speech pattern peculiarity to her being undereducated, which she and her family and their friends certainly were, and I concluded that they were merely incapable of using all the required words for acceptable speech. This, and other less-sensible formations were “normal” for them, but were cringingly grating to my ear.

    Naturally, I brought this strangeness to her attention. More than once. Her lack of concern was monumental and her lack of respect for my intelligence frustrating. But then, I imagine that if she had been able to formulate and express the term “pedantic asshole” it would have been frequently directed at me during our brief time together.

    [(myl) I suspect that others can be found to take this terminological task over from her.]

  22. pj said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 6:32 am

    @Peter G. Howland
    I assign your opinions on dialectal variation and its relation to the 'sensible', the 'grammatical', the 'required' and the 'acceptable' to your being undereducated. But hanging out here is a great first step to rectifying that, so don't fret.

  23. Elliott P. said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 7:25 am


    Thank you, pj. Howland needed to hear that.

    I'm from east central Indiana and this indeed sounds "normal" to me. And trust me, usage there has nothing to do with education level.

  24. Elliott P. said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    Or maybe I should have said he "needs told that." Also standard for Hoosiers.

  25. Skullturf said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    Another data point: I grew up in Victoria BC Canada. "The cat wants in" and "I want off the bus" sound ordinary and unremarkable to me, but "the car needs washed" and "the laundry needs done" sound odd to me.

  26. 9th floor said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    It took me a few moments of reading this post to register that the reason for treating "You want punched out?" as nonstandard was not the weird verb+particle combination "punch out". I suppose it must be acceptable in some regional dialects!

    [(myl) it's interesting to learn that there are some varieties — or idiolects — of English in which this sense of "punch someone out" is not recognized. It seems to occur in in Scottish varieties of English, for example, as in this passage from Charles Stross's Iron Sunrise:

    We'll need two code words. 'I'm going to sneeze' means I'm going to try to punch him out myself. And, uh, 'That's a funny smell' means I wnat you to come in with everything you've got.

    And here it in in a novel by the British author Simon Green:

    I would have liked to stand around for a while and watch him suffer, but I didn't have the time. So I stepped forward and punched him out.

    Of course, it also comes up fairly often in U.S. writing, as in Elmore Leonard's Unknown Man #89:

    The bartender didn't give a shit. He wasn't paid to talk. maybe listen, if you held him against the bar and threatened to punch him out.

    It can also be found in this book by the Australian author Sara Henderson:

    'Can I punch him out, please, Mum?' I told her to warn him to stop and say if he didn't he would be in trouble. She bounded off to school the next day, hoping to get her plaits pulled.

    So far,, the evidence seems to be that failure to recognize this relatively common expression is a personal trait of your own.]

    When I have discussed these want/need + participle constructions with my colleagues, one of the things that has come up is the distinction that Skullturf points out: it's possible that for speakers who have this distinction, the subject has to be the "right kind of thing" to be able to experience a need or a want, which your cat plausibly can, but your shirt can't. For myself on the other hand, "That shirt wants/needs ironed" (or indeed "ironing") sounds like perfectly idiomatic informal English to my (Scottish) ears.

  27. Dan Blum said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    I don't recall this needs washed, though. That's a Pittsburghism.

    Everyone I know who says "this needs washed" grew up in Ohio, and I think some of them near Cleveland.

  28. D.O. said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    (myl)…If there's interest, maybe I'll explain the bands and blotches at some later time.

    Please, please, please.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    @9th floor: I first heard punch out on the American TV show Happy Days (1974–1984), which was extremely popular. Before that it might have been regional or even non-existent for all I know, but after that it was known everywhere in the country.

    As far as I can tell, That shirt needs ironing is standard everywhere, but That shirt needs ironed is regional, and Scotland is one of the regions.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    Okay, you don't need to check.

    "'I swore a thousand times that I'd punch him out and tread on his face till it turned from pink to blue,' Gratton confided to me."

    Nat Joseph Ferber, I Found Out: A Chronicle of the Twenties (1939).

    Maybe it's out meaning "unconscious", as in knock out.

  31. 9th floor said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    Thank you, Prof. Liberman, for your careful reply to my comment! I find it interesting though that the examples you produced were all of the form punch NP out. Perhaps the odd reaction I reported was due to seeing an unfamiliar gap? In any case, I don't have any difficulty with the construction with a different verb, e.g. The bins want taken out, so I think I'll just agree with you that I can't reliably inspect my own ideolect. Thanks again!

    [(myl) Well, the "want + V-en" construction construes the V as passive, so it's natural that a post-verbal object is not there.]

  32. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    I'm in the contingent who find "I want off" or "the cat wants in" completely ordinary but "you want punched out?" or "the car needs washed" unfamiliar. And now I'm wondering which of my regional affiliations is responsible for that, since every place I've lived is around the edges of these dialect areas. Judging from the maps, I'm guessing Northern Virginia.

    Still, I'm pretty sure my wife uses "the cat wants in" and her roots are nowhere near these regions. I'll have to keep listening carefully.

  33. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    "I want off" is an important phrase in James Blish's classic science-fiction series Cities in Flight. But Blish lived in New Jersey and Pennsylvania near the edges of the attested region, so I'm not sure this is conclusive of anything.

  34. Mark Dunan said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    Wow; "punch out" is something other than universally-recognized English? I had no idea that there was anything unusual about it.

    When I first read this entry, I imagined that Jack Davis was just eliminating a "to get" in the middle there, which I (New York/New Jersey, grew up in the '80s) would never consider saying, and that that's what was interesting about this.

    And if your age is close to mine, you probably played this game as a kid:


  35. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    In Ireland, that's a clear marker of a Northerner.

  36. Breffni said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    myl, pj, Elliott P.: surely peter g. howland was being heavily ironic at the expense of a younger, more pedantic peter g. howland?

  37. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    "myl, pj, Elliott P.: surely peter g. howland was being heavily ironic at the expense of a younger, more pedantic peter g. howland?"

    I prefer this reading, myself. It's always a problem with irony and satire when the behavior targeted is pretty much indistinguishable from any attempt to satirize it.

  38. JR said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Whereabouts in Cleveland? I'm from the East Side, just barely still inside Cuyahoga county in the east. Many Italian and Eastern European immigrant families and many Jews. I wonder if that has anything to do with it and for not being familiar with the Northern Cities Shift?

  39. Peter G. Howland said,

    May 26, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

    Consider me punched out.
    But thanks to Breffni @5:34 pm for seeing through my foolishness and my attempt to demonstrate that I was a *lot* smarter 25-30 years ago than I am now.
    Analyzing the cultural and historical development of certain speech patterns is the point of interest here and the prejudices and corrections and guffaws directed at any speech community’s “normal” constructions and locutions are in fact pointless. I was hoping to show such prescriptive nonsense at my own expense.

  40. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 27, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

    @Peter G. Howland: good for you. It was clever and humorous. Unfortunately, some of us (including me, I confess) are not clever and humorous enough to have recognized its cleverness and humor.

  41. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    @JR: I grew up in Shaker Heights (on the wrong side of the tracks, I hasten to say), but I think I hear a lot more strong NCVS on the West Side than the East Side, only partly because if the NCVS has affected AAVE, I can't tell. On the other hand, the area you describe sounds just right for the NCVS. I think I've heard it a fair amount in the more densely populated parts of Lake County.

    So maybe my "lots and lots" was an exaggeration. But try going to bars or restaurants downtown–say whatever restaurant the politicians are having lunch at these days. Or the Parmatown Mall. Or just listen to accents on the local news, the people who are interviewed as well as the anchors and reporters.

    @Kathleen: Speaking of Youngstown, maybe there should be a sociolinguistic study comparing the needs cleaned and NCVS isoglosses with the Browns-Steelers and Indians-Pirates isoroots. All you'd have to do is look at caps and shirts. (How do you say "root for a team" in classical Greek?)

    @Dan Blum: I wasn't entirely serious about calling needs cleaned a Pittsburghism, especially since, as I said, I don't recall hearing it there. It's famously associated with Pittsburgh, though.

  42. Gus said,

    May 28, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    My family is from the west side of Cleveland, and I grew up in rural Medina county, and have always heard and used the "wants —ed" and "needs —ed" construction. I knew it was a regionalism, but I didn't quite realize it was *that* regional.

  43. Matt said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    Born and raised in the Pittsburgh and northern West Virginia area, want/need + V-en is natural for me to say. However an old professor of mine, who doesn't say it, has noticed that there are situations when 'to be + v-en' is the only form allowed. Of course we never did any investigation into this, but it's something to think about.

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