“Republican Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) told the crew at Morning Joe Wednesday that Republicans ‘need to be willing’ to shut down the government when Congress prepares to tackle the debt ceiling in two months” (MSNBC 1/2/13). “Patriots need to work on offense during bye week” (Boston.com 1/1/13).
“President Obama: ‘Words Need to Lead to Action’ on Gun Violence” (The White House Blog 12/19/12).
Let’s be clear about this: the point of those examples has nothing to do with whether the GOP is being obstructionist on fiscal matters, whether Tom Brady can quarterback the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl, or if the president can cajole Congress into meaningful gun legislation. The issue is the phrase “need to” and how the use of that phrase has gotten completely out of control.
“Need to” was once the sole province of menacing gangsters (“You need to pay up”) and even more menacing mothers (“You need to go to bed”). Today, it has been co-opted in everyday dialect by everyone from President Obama (“words need to lead to action”) to your local Starbucks barista (“You need to move over there”). According to the Google NGram Viewer, which charts the annual count of selected phrases culled from millions of books Google has digitized, use of the phrase “need to” rose 500% between 1950 and 2000. Try going a day without hearing someone tell you, “You need to do that” or reading somewhere, “You need to know this”.
Besides being ubiquitous, “need to” has become obnoxious. When you are told, “you need to do something” it implies doing that thing is in some way necessary for your mental, physical, or spiritual well-being. Moreover, “need to” often carries with it an unwelcome context. When bosses or teachers tell you, “’You need to’ finish a report”, it is can serve as an reminder of an uneven power relationship. When doctors tell you, “’You need to’ lose weight”, it can be another instance of whitecoats patronizing the patient. When the weatherman tells you, “’You need to’ wear a raincoat” it frequently suggests unwarranted omniscience, considering how often the weatherman is wrong.
And along with that, “need to” contributes to the general diminution of manners and courtesy in our society. When the barista says, ”You need to move over there”, it still sounds like a command, generally lacking in the civility of the request, “Would you mind moving over there?” As a side benefit, “please” goes much better with the latter.
Meanwhile, two eminently serviceable words, “should” and “must”, are being shoved aside by the omnipresent “need to”. Google NGram notes that in the same period that the use of “need to” went up 500%, the use of both “should” and “must” went down by 33%.
Of course, the use of “should” and “must” do not serve as substitute for “need to” in every situation but in many cases they not only retain the advantage of brevity, one word as opposed to two, but nuance also. “Should” often implies actionable but discretionary advice. When someone tells you, “You should take it easy, slow down”, there is more a feeling of consideration than if you were told “You should take it easy, you need to slow down”. When someone says, “If you want help, you should call me” there is an implied volition that is not present in “If you want help, you need to call me”. That sounds like more of an unforgiving order.
Likewise, “must”. In most cases, “must” implies taking some action is essential. “You must do this” is not much different from “You need to do this” – both of them tell you to take action - although the former implies there may benefit conferred to others rather than simply a personal benefit doing what you are told. Consider the example of a mother who beseeches the fireman going into the burning building, “You must help my children”. Far different than telling the rescuer, “You need to help my children”.
What is to be done? The answer is obvious. This is a call for the language police to begin replacing “need to” with “should” and “must”. To say nothing of reinstituting the more courteous “please” with requests, in lieu of telling someone they need to do something.
We need to stop the proliferation of “need to”. We should, no on second thought, make that we must.
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