14 August 2006

On "need to"

My brother recently pointed out this article in Slate to me and wanted to know what I thought; unfortunately, I had to take issue with nearly everything in it. Happily, my brother enjoyed my response more than the article itself. The Slate article is by Ben Yagoda, a professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware. Yagoda has guest posted on Language Log but has also been taken to task in the same venue. As Yagoda is a professional writer and scholar of English, his take on the usage of a particular word – in this case, need – is decidedly unlike what a linguist would argue.

Since I have been so late in posting this discussion, there has been time for others in the linguablogosphere to have commented upon it, but I have seen little discussion elsewhere. I have only found it discussed in this entry on Translate This, and only for Yagoda’s apparent use of the term tense instead of mood (see also a comment by Polyglot Conspiracy on the same post).

Yagoda starts with a convenient observation that President Bush uses need to apparently as a tool of political innuendo, but offers no comparison about whether other leaders use it more or less. He then tries to argue that need to has effectively replaced all other verbs and modals of necessity:

In the battle for pre-eminence among verbs of compulsion or requirement, need to has won a bloodless and overwhelming victory over must, ought to, should, and the former and longtime champion, have to, which yields only about a billion Google hits compared to two billion for need to.

Like Bull Run, this may have been a battle that many of us civilians regrettably believed we could watch in safety as we sipped sweet tea while reclined on a picnic blanket. But I didn't witness it; although Yagoda cites Google counts for need to vs. other expressions of "requirement", he offers no time comparison, and thus has no way of showing that need to is indeed gaining on other constructions. Yagoda then claims that need to is more versatile than other expressions of requirement, citing its ability to work in the passive:

Its popularity is partly explained by its versatility. Passive constructions in the form of "the floor needs to be washed" or "the video needs to be returned" deftly finesse the question of just who will be doing the washing or returning.

But in "The floor needs to be washed", wash is the passive verb; meanwhile, "The floor has to be washed" shows that need to is not uniquely versatile in this respect. As does "The floor must be washed", "the floor ought to be washed", and "the floor should be washed".

Yagoda then claims that the "ascendance" of need to "dovetails perfectly with the long and sad decline of the traditional imperative mood." As with the absence of evidence regarding the increasing frequency of need to, there is no evidence for the decline in the usage of the imperative. Yet he goes on: "Without it, the Ten Commandments would be the Ten Suggestions." The Ten Commandments, in their English translation, are not imperative. If they were, they would read "Don't kill; Don't lie," and so on. "Instead of the pleasingly direct 'No Smoking,' we have the presumptuous 'Thank You for Not Smoking'." Likewise, No Smoking is not imperative (Don't Smoke is). Sure, there might be a difference between this and other ways of forbidding smoking, but they all forbid smoking.

Yagoda then implies that need to softens a command more than any other construction that expresses an order. Again, this is both unsupported and probably false: by this reasoning, "You ought to do the dishes" is not as "soft" as "You need to do the dishes". To me, ought is softer.

Up to this point, Yagoda has been discussing need to as a verbal construction, but here he switches to the noun, need. He manipulates the Oxford entry for nominal need, which offers a quoted example of its usage (in 1929) as a technical term in psychology, citing it instead as "the first use of need in an emotional context". This leads him to conclude that the author of the quotation coined the use of need to refer to emotional needs, which nevertheless has little to do with the modal need to.

He then moves on to attribute current usage of need to the theories of 1940’s era psychologist Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Human Needs. Indeed, the intended implication seems to be that Maslow's theories are somehow relevant to (and even influential on) the use of need to as a modal verb: "It led to a new and now-dominant meaning for the adjective 'needy' — more or less the antonym of 'emotionally self-sufficient'." Here is another empirical problem – there is no evidence that this the "now dominant meaning" in place of, say, "poor".

The ultimate upshot is that Yagoda claims that since Maslow and his students discussed "needs" of children, that anyone who uses need as a verb is using it in an infantilizing way. "The Bushian "Anyone who harbors terrorists needs to fear the U.S." certainly isn't an I message, although it does have a petulant, lecturing undertone that evokes the nursery. The president … is trading on the word's psychological connotation, with its subtle but ineluctable suggestion of strong inner forces at work." Really? The president ... subtle?

In short, Yagoda has misused a dictionary, misused Google, confused grammatical terminology, equivocated on nominal and verbal functions of need, and made unsupported claims about the frequency of various constructions. It all comes across as clever and entertaining to the casual, intellectual reader of Slate, but I have to read it as an exercise in creative writing more than an informed discussion of the meaning and function of words.


At Sun Nov 12, 12:27:00 AM 2006, Blogger Russell said...

Very nice commentary. I had a little bit of not-as-detailed (though still somewhat negative) commentary on a couple of Slate posts, the "need to" one included, here: http://noncompositional.com/2006/08/slate-needs-to-suck/

At Mon Nov 13, 03:44:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Ah, sorry for not linking to your post. As I recall, when I'd written it, I searched for other blog commentary to cite, but then I didn't post it for about two weeks. Your post appeared in the meantime, and I neglected to do another blog lit search before posting. Looks like we're aligned in how we feel about Yagoda's piece.


Post a Comment

<< Home