Non-standard sex talk

I’ll start with the steamy gay sex talk from an on-line messaging site — sensitive readers are hereby warned about this content — and then go on to focus on a non-standard syntactic construction in this exchange, what the YGDP (the Yale University Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America) calls the Needs Washed construction (using as a label an instance of the instruction), involving a PSP complement of a head V.

The exchange. An excerpt passed on to me by Tyler Schnoebelen.

The participants are engaging in on-line hookup talk, though apparently at a distance. The first writer in this passage — call him T — takes the interactional role of sexual top: dominant (note the boy addressed to writer B in T’s second message) and presumably insertive. B enthusiastically takes the bottom, receptive role.

T and B are apparently strangers — T’s initial question is about where B is located — but they have familiar sexual roles to fall into in their exchanges. It turns out that B is in Ohio, and that’s important to the linguistic discussion below. Then we get pounded for fucked from T, And the crucial exchange:

T: That ass [‘your ass’] needs [sexual] attention.
B: It needs used [‘used sexually’].

That’s the way you might say it if you’re from Ohio; otherwise: It needs to be used or perhaps It needs fucking.

Some background. The YGDP entry on Needs Washed (which surveys relevant literature) notes that at least three head Vs participate in this construction — need, want, and like — and that they’re in an implicational relationship: if you have the construction at all, you have it with need; if you have it with want, you have it with need; and if you have it with like, you have it with the other two. Their examples, slightly adapted:

The car needs repaired.
The baby woke up and probably wants fed.
The dog sure does like petted.

The entry also observes that the construction is geographically restricted, being found primarily in a band that extends from western Pennsylvania though central and southern Ohio and on to Iowa. (The distribution isn’t essentially geographical, of course, but social; however, the spread through social groups resulted in a concentration of the variant in certain geographical areas.)

There are at least four variants:

(1) PSP complement: The car needs repaired. [PSP-Comp]

(2) nominal direct object: The car needs repair. [Nom-DO]

(3) (passive) infinitival complement: The car needs to be repaired. [Inf-Comp]

(4) PRP complement: The car needs repairing. [PRP-Comp]

The middle two variants are available for almost all speakers of English. Most speakers of English have the PRP-Comp (4), and on first hearing the PSP-Comp (1) find it bizarre, usually taking it to be an inadvertent error for the Inf-Comp (3). Speakers with the PSP-Comp (1) mostly don’t have the PRP-Comp (4) — the two constructions are close to being in complementary distribution socially — though they do understand it when they hear it and find it unremarkable; but they also find their own variant unremarkable, and most of them use it without any recognition that others might be baffled by it. If you’re from the Needs Washed zone, you’ll see the PSP-Comp (1) as entirely natural.

So in the Needs Washed zone, you’ll use the construction, in any context, no matter who you are socially (with the sole exception that Needs Washed is apparently almost never used by blacks). The construction appears in newspaper stories in the zone (in the Columbus OH Dispatch, for example), in student writing, and in amost everybody’s speech, regardless of social class, age, sex, etc.  However, people in the zone who’ve had close contact with outsiders are likely to have learned that outsiders might be troubled by it, and they might moderate their speech in certain contexts. (I don’t know of any research on the matter.)

Guys hunting for sex on-line are likely to be educated, even highly educated, but if they’re from the zone they’ll probably unreflectively use Needs Washed, as B does above.

Semantic notes. The sense of need in Needs Washed is this one from NOAD2:

require (something) because it is essential or very important: I need help now | [with present participle]:  this shirt needs washing | [with infinitive]:  they need to win tomorrow.

That puts it into the class of volitive verbs, expressing someone’s positive attitude towards having something or doing something: hoping for, wanting, wishing for, needing, liking, enjoying. The desiderative verb want is the center of this constellation, related to need and like by virtue of the fact that if you need something, you hope for it, want it, wish for it; and similarly, if you like something, enjoy it, you hope for it, want it, wish for it.

Then there’s the syntax and semantics of the construction as a whole: Needs Washed is a passivoid active construction: an active clause, but with a subject denoting the affected participant in some event (as in a passive clause). (The standard PRP-Comp (4) variant is also passivoid.)

So I suppose for exactness we could label Needs Washed the “volitive passivoid PRP-Comp construction”, but no one could love that.

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