Showing posts with label subjunctive. Show all posts
Showing posts with label subjunctive. Show all posts

Sunday, September 23, 2007

if need(s) be

Still putting off writing the post that requires a lot of sentence-tree work--in favo(u)r of something that, like yesterday's topic, (a) concerns archaic forms that survive in modern English as set phrases, (b) involves adding/deleting apparent suffixes, and (c) came up in reading this weekend's Guardian (which, I must say, is living up to its reputation for typos and editing errors this week, including a sub-headline that starts "If you weigh more then when you started your course..." in the 'Graduate' section--directed at (BrE) university/(AmE) college students. I'm losing hope for language knowledge and spelling standards in the age of spell-checking. I'm also setting records for long, pointless parenthetical comments.)

So, as I was saying, before I so rudely interrupted myself, I was reading the Guardian--this time the 'Work' section--and in an article about lottery millionaires who continue to hold jobs, I read:
Elaine: "If needs be, you'll find me doing the dishes or mopping the floors..."
I've seen/heard if needs be before, and Better Half confirms it's what he'd say, but I'd say if need be. Back to Algeo's British or American English?, which says:
CIC [Cambridge International Corpus] indicates that if need be is the usual form in both British and American, with 7.6 and 7.1 [instances per ten million words], respectively. However, if needs be has 1.8 British and no American tokens [per ten million].
I did, however, find this claim on
If you're in Wyoming and you're not sure which direction you're going, wait until you start picking up radio stations again and listen to the ads. If they're all about corn, you're entering Nebraska. If they're all about parenting, Utah. Also, for whatever reason, people on Utah radio keep saying "if needs be" instead of "if need be." Not sure what's up with that.
Nor am I/Me neither.

Now, this is just some idle wondering, but I have two hypotheses as to why needs has been growing this -s, particularly in BrE. They're not mutually exclusive--both reasons could be conspiring against if need be:
  1. If need be is a set phrase involving a subjunctive verb form (be), and the subjunctive has survived much better in AmE than in BrE. (Another of those topics that I will write a separate post about!) Since the phrase therefore makes a bit less grammatical sense in a dialect without the subjunctive, maybe some speakers are more comfortable using it with a plural verb. Note that the past tense of the phrase is if need were (OED, 2003 draft)--i.e. the subjunctive [singular or plural] past tense form looks like the indicative (non-subjunctive) plural past tense. So, that could make people feel like the subjunctive should go with a plural subject.

  2. There is another set phrase with a similar meaning, needs must, which has plural marking on the need and an odd verb, so they might influence each other. For example:
    a1902 F. NORRIS Pit (1903) ii. 51 Then needs must that Laura go with the cook to see if the range was finally and properly adjusted.
    1991 B. WHITEHEAD Dean it was that Died (BNC) 132 She sighed again. Today she would have to go back home, making out that she'd been in London staying with a friend... Well, needs must. [OED, draft entry 2003]

    World-Wide Words discusses needs must and related phrases here, and although it's not noted as AmE or BrE, I have the impression that I only started hearing/reading needs must after I moved to the UK, so perhaps it is more common/influential here.
Worth noting here is that [all of the evidence that I can find for if needs be post-dates any evidence for if need be]. So this seems to [could] be a case where BrE has deviated from an older phrasing--i.e. BrE has [might have] an innovation that AmE (except maybe in Utah!) doesn't have. Of course, that's only worth noting because so may people assume that BrE forms are older than AmE...and that's just not how language works.

[Bracketed parts of the last paragraph are later edits--see comments for, um, commentary.]