The Disappearance of To Be

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Two BeesA trend I have lately noticed with greater frequency is the extirpation of the words “to be” from their rightful place in both written and spoken statements. Unfortunately, I don’t have any specific examples to which I can link directly to illustrate what I mean, but a Google search of the phrase “need changed” returns a surprisingly large number.

I’m not sure when I first saw an example of this, but I started noticing it more frequently ever since I saw a commercial for a local heating/furnace company. In the spot, two employees are talking about air filters and knowing when they’ve reached the end of their life. One of them says something to the affect of, “if you hold the filter up and can’t see light coming through it, it needs changed.”

See what he did there? He left out “to be.” He should have said, “needs to be changed.”

Ever since I first saw this commercial several months ago, I have noticed it in the writing of non-professional authors, as well as during casual conversation. It seems that a lot of people are starting to drop “to be” altogether.

At first I was troubled by the seemingly senseless striking of “to be” from our parlance. After all, it has a place in our sentences for a reason. The phrase, “needs changed,” doesn’t work grammatically because “needs” is a transitive verb and must be followed by a who or a what. It needs an object. “Changed” doesn’t answer the question of what, because “changed” is itself a verb. If it were the gerund “changing” or the plural “changes” it would act as a noun and satisfy the transitive verb. The phrase, “to be changed,” is an infinitive phrase acting as a noun, so it satisfies the transitive verb’s requirements.

On the other hand, how necessary is it? I mean sure, there are grammatical rules that say “to be” can’t simply be stripped out of the sentence, but if the purpose of language is to communicate ideas, don’t we all understand what he meant when he said “needs changed?” In fact, in every instance I’ve read of heard where “to be” has been left out, the message of the statement was always clear. If that’s the case, how bad can it really be to drop “to be” from our parlance?

I’m not really sure what to think about all of this. On the one hand, it could just be lazy speaking and writing on the part of a minority of people, but the frequency with which I continue to notice it suggests a possible evolution of our language. Our language is always changing, and it’s entirely possible that this could be a step – for better or for worse – in a new direction.

P.S.: Please excuse the horrible visual pun in this post. Also, many thanks to Emily for helping me figure out its grammatical aspects.

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  1. I can’t think of any reason to use “needs changed” instead of “needs changing”.

    However, in spoken English, words are OFTEN omitted. It’s not necessarily grammatically incorrect. (Although, I might be so distracted by their wording that I would miss their meaning)

    BUT! In written English, it is definitely wrong. That Google search is KILLING ME. 🙁

    it hurtsss usssss….

  2. Phil

    to be or not two bee

  3. That reminds me that if we got rid of “to be,” Hamlet would be a very different play. I was originally going to title this post “Or Not” and not explain why, but I wasn’t sure anyone would get the joke.

  4. Your post brought up some bad memories. When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher (who was also the boys basketball coach. He wasn’t good at either) decided that the only thing that we really needed to remember for the rest of our lives are the seven forms of the verb “to be.” Am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being. I don’t know if he was correct, but fourteen years later I can still recite them in the order they were taught to us.

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