When I need a book, I need it bad. After 25 years in publishing and thousands of books read, piled, sold, and bought, and after 12 years of teaching English grammar, I have seldom read a popular nonfiction author with as much pleasure as I read Anthony Bourdain. Not only do I remember the sheer glee of reading a galley of his breakthrough title, Kitchen Confidential back in 2000, but I also remember going to the publication party for Bone in the Throat, his first book, a highly enjoyable murder mystery that appeared a full five years earlier in 1995.
So I felt fine saying, "I need to read Bourdain's new book!" Yet when I polled some fans on Facebook, I was hit with more than one response pleading for a moratorium on the usage "need to." Seems like it sticks unpleasantly with some editors, copy editors, and copywriters like a . . . bone in the throat.
Why does "need to" settle so ill? There is no grammatical reason not to use it. "Need" is a verb most often followed by objects: nouns, gerunds, clauses, and infinitive forms. One can need a noun, an object: "I need money!" "I need a hemostat, stat!" "I need a V8!" Or one can need an action: "I need to make money!" "I need to get a seat!" "I need to get out of here!" And when an action is called for, the infinitive form of the verb is called for. When I've taught English to speakers of other languages, one important grammar point to note is that "need" is followed by an infinitive and not an inflected form of the verb: i.e., "I need to calm down" and not "I need calm down."
So why the need to hate "need to"? Turns out that most editors who dislike it do so because "need" loses its urgency, its meaning, its force, when it's used for mundane requests. When a stewardess says, "I need you to return your seat to the upright position," she doesn't really "need" anything. She wants you to do something. She is ordering you to do something. You must do so for safety reasons. You ought to because that person behind you is really, really sick of the tray table constricting her personal space into the size of a small puppy crate. But there's no real need there.
I, on the other hand, do need to get this book. The section on Sandra Lee looks particularly toothsome.
What about you? How do you feel about "need to"? And about Anthony Bourdain?
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and is currently teaching English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services