Note: This post explores the differences between the verbs need and require. It may not explain all cases, but I hope it provides some insight that could be useful to English language learners or teachers.
Introduction: To Need or To Require?
Often, the verbs need and require can be used as synonyms (i.e. they are the same). However, through my years teaching English, I have occasionally come across sentences in which the verb “need” doesn’t seem to fit. The purpose of this page is to explain those cases. Let’s look at the below sentences, for example.
- This job needs patience. (This seems wrong — the job requires patience — it doesn’t need it).
- The meeting will need at least 1 hour. (Wrong again — the meeting will require an hour — it doesn’t need it)
This got me thinking — what is the rule? What’s the difference between the verbs need and require?
Firstly, let’s look at a few examples of the verb need and how we can paraphrase the sentences.
- I need a glass of water. (= I want / desire / would like a glass of water because it’s important)
- The cat needs some food. (= It wants / desires / would like food because it’s important)
Judging by these examples, to need something requires volition (will). In other words, something that needs has to be alive; it has to be able to have needs that can be fulfilled. Compare:
- You need patience to be a doctor. (Correct = you, a person, can have needs)
- Being a doctor needs patience. (Wrong = ‘Being a doctor’, the subject, is a thing, not a person. It cannot need anything.)
One Exception: Personification
Personification is we talk about non-human objects (such as cars or trees) like they are alive — for example: the stars danced in the sky. We use the verb need in this way sometimes too. For example.
- Your car needs oil.
- Your bathroom needs a cleaning.
In both these sentences, we seem to be giving the subjects (car, house) the ability to need something, as if it were a person. These may be exceptions to the above rule.
From the above, we can formulate this general rule: Living things can need while objects generally cannot need something.
So, if we go back to our first two sentences above (“This job
needs requires patience. / The meeting will need require an hour.”), we now have a reason why ‘need’ is unnatural: because the subjects cannot have needs. Next, there is one more distinction between the two verbs.
A Nuance: To Require = To Cause to Be Necessary
This is one of the definitions of require according to my Apple/Oxford dictionary. Again, let’s look at two examples to illustrate this difference.
- My job requires computer skills. (Correct)
- I require computer skills. (Unnatural)
The first sentence is correct. Your job creates the need/requirement for computer skills. It is the cause of the need. Your job requires the skills, and you need the skills.
Think of it in the passive voice and ask yourself: why are computer skills required? Answer: Your job (not you).
This explanation also works well with our first two examples.
- My job
needsrequires patience. (Correct — Why is patience required? Answer: Your job)
- The meeting will
needrequire at least an hour. (Correct — Why will an hour be needed? Answer: the meeting)
Reminder: To Need and Require Are Often Synonyms
Using the two rules above, we can see why the verbs can be used synonymously sometimes. Take another example:
- My boss needs the report by 5 p.m. (Correct = Your boss wants/desires/would like it because it’s important)
- My boss requires the report by 5 p.m. (Correct = Why is the report required? Because of your boss. He has caused the requirement/necessity)
Summary and Closing
These are the two rules I believe can be helpful:
- Generally, living things need something.
- To require is to cause something to be necessary. Ask yourself Why is it required? The answer should be the subject of your sentence.
I’ll admit, this is complicated, and there are a few exceptions that may not fit into this rule. Look at the sentence The soup needs more salt, for example. Firstly, the soup is an inanimate object without needs. Who needs the salt? You do. You need salt for your soup (this is a perfect sentence). Secondly, why is the salt required? It’s because of you (not the soup — it’s important for you). Following my rules, the sentence should be: I need/require salt for my soup. However, we say “The soup needs salt.”
Why? Have we gotten lazy in our language? Or are we thinking of the soup as something that has needs? Am I totally wrong? Possibly. But there’s no point worrying about cases when the flexibility allows the verb to be used in a different situation; instead, we only need to worry about sentences in which one verbs cannot be used well. That’s the point of this post.
Lastly, there may be some of you who see a sentence like “The meeting will need a break” and think it sounds fine. If so, you are less of a prescriptivist than I am. Be happy.
Do you think you understand? Take the Need vs Require quiz below.
Choose the correct verb: Need or Require
1. The software 250 megabytes of disk space.
2. You 250 megabytes of disk space to use the software.
3. Immigrants money to move to another country.
4. Moving to another country money.
5. His job long hours of work.
Questions? Comments? Find a Mistake?
I hope this has helped you understand the difference between need and require. If you have a question, please ask it in the comments section below.
-Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com (Copyright)