Submitted by swardie on January 10, 2010

“went missing/gone missing”?

The first time I heard the phrase “went missing” was a few years while watching a national news broadcast. The new reporter interviewed a midwestern sheriff about the case of a missing girl. He said she “went missing eight days ago”. I assumed it was a colloquialism (and very poor grammar). Now I hear it and read it quite frequently. Where did this strange expression come from? How can someone “go” missing? Shouldn’t it be “disappeared”? Or perhaps, “has been missing”?

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A note on the grammar - it seems we were barking up the wrong tree when talking of gerunds: 'missing' is generally regarded as an adjective here (just check missing in any dictionary, for example - http://thefreedictionary.com/dict.asp?Word=missing).

Did you ever find that missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle?
He was reported missing last year.
The missing child was found safe and sound.
My gloves have been missing for ages.

So 'missing' in this expression is ana adjective in predicative positions and go' is indeed acting as a linking or copular verb here, functioning grammatically like 'be':

She is missing.
She went missing two weeks ago.
She has gone missing.

Here 'go' has more of the meaning of 'become', another linking verb, as in the expressions porsche and I have already pointed out, as well as one or two others:

She is crazy about him.
She has gone crazy.

It's very dark.
It suddenly went dark.

He is bald/blind/mad/bankrupt etc
He has gone bald/blind/mad/bankrupt etc

His hair is grey.
His hair has gone grey.

This milk is sour.
This milk has gone sour.

The children are really excited.
The children went wild with excitement.

This is all wrong.
Everything went wrong.

But admittedly, 'missing' is the only adjective ending in '-ing' that I can find being used with 'go' in this way.

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@DesertRat71 - ' "Gone missing" has a "street" ring to it and causes the person saying it to appear lacking in education. If this is the sort of thing they were taught in school it's an indictment of our education system. Then again, maybe they're attempting to appeal more to the uneducated.' - You don't actually say why you think this is wrong, so we have to do a bit of guesswork.

If it's because go is being followed by a gerund, as Jasper has pointed out, many verbs are followed by an infinitive or gerund. You'll find lists of these if you Google "verb patterns". Go + 'ing' form is common in talking about sports and activities - "go fishing, go cycling"etc.

But, as is perhaps more likely, your objection is that "go missing" is not a deliberate action, you would seem to have some support from GrammarGirl here. On the other hand "go" is often used as a linking verb for describing events over which the subject has no control - "go bald, go grey, go numb" etc.

As has been mentioned a couple of times above, this is a British idiom, which for us Brits is absolutely standard, and quite old. Here are some 19th century examples:

"That was the letter that went missing ?" - Victoria Parliamentary Papers (Australia) 1859
"the marshal requested the stranger to tell the true reason for his refusing to be searched when the snuff-box went missing" - Short stories 1876
"Not an accident occurred under his care, not a piece of baggage went missing" - Crusading with Knights Templar, Pennsylvania 1878
"But I know that if they went missing I should feel pretty happy" The Granta 1890

But recently it has begun to appear more and more in American publications, and it does seem to be something that grates on some American ears.

It is perhaps worth quoting the famous William Safire, writing in his 'On Language' column in the New York Times in 2004:

"Why has the construction lasted so long and now blossomed? It does a semantic job that needs doing, that's why. No other term quite encapsulates ''to become lost inexplicably and unexpectedly,'' which connotes suspicion of trouble. From the most serious loss (a person kidnapped, or a soldier unaccounted for or absent without leave) to an irritating minor loss (an object is mislaid), to go missing -- always in its past tense, went , or past participle, gone -- conveys a worried, nonspecific meaning that no other word or phrase quite does.

Is it good grammar? It may well stretch our hard-wired sense of syntax. To critics, a simple is missing would solve the problem. But because gone missing has acquired the status of an idiom, which is ''an unassailable peculiarity,'' it is incorrect to correct it. As the fumblerule goes, ''idioms is idioms.'' Relax and enjoy them." (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/27/magazine/27ON...)


There are discussions of this question at these linguistics blogs:

Separated By a Common Language:
http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/...

Not One Off Britishisms:
http://britishisms.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/go-...

Language Log
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/arch...

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DesertRat71,

I honestly don't see any problem with wikitionary in this case, and it usually has usage notes on words or phrases that are or are seen as ungrammatical. So, thy point is meaningless, but I'll indulge thee.

Catenative verb: "A verb--such as keep, promise, want, seem, and many others--that can link with other verbs to form a chain or series."

Source: http://grammar.about.com/od/c/g/catenativeverbt...

Catenative: "Denoting a verb that governs a nonfinite form [a present participle, past participle, or infinitive, bare or full] of another verb, for example, like in I like swimming."

Source: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition...

Wiktionary was used for the express purpose of listing catenative verbs of which "go" is one.

"It appears the authoritative declaration of correct grammar went missing."

No, it didn't. The phrase isn't ungrammatical. Catenative verbs exist; thus, these phrases make sense. The quibbles are purely for a stylistic reason.

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"Went missing is perfectly fine."

"Wiktionary (a blend of the words wiki and dictionary) is a multilingual, web-based project to create a free content dictionary *of all words in all languages.*" (emphasis mine).

It appears the authoritative declaration of correct grammar went missing.

Regardless, the phrase grates on the ears and it appears that a lot of people hearing it have gone tired.

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Went missing is perfectly fine. The verb go is a catenative verb and thus can chain together with, in its case, an infinitive and a gerund.

Scroll down a bit and go can be found listed:

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:English_...

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Journalists are notoriously unskilled when it comes to english usage and grammar. There's a show teaser currently running on television wherein the reporter states, "I've learned...that all is not what it seems." In other words, *everything* is an illusion. She really means, "Not all is what it seems", though there are better ways of conveying that intended message. Apparently neither she nor her editor know the difference.

"Gone missing" has a "street" ring to it and causes the person saying it to appear lacking in education. If this is the sort of thing they were taught in school it's an indictment of our education system. Then again, maybe they're attempting to appeal more to the uneducated.

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nuffsaid, did you bother to read the comments above, especially Warsaw Will's? We are dealing with an idiomatic expression that now appears well ensconced in American English, after being so in British English for a long time. It does not "sound terrible" to my ears (in contrast with, for example, "those kind," which folks on TV say regularly). Please try to get over it ;-).

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you "go" or "went" somewhere....where is "missing?" sounds terrible and grammatically incorrect...professional news journalists should drop these phrases..

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dot, please don't SHOUT. Now try to apply your view to the quote in my Dec. 17 post, "...a New Jersey woman who went missing in May 2010." How would you do that? At any rate, there is simply no argument against what has clearly become common usage in the press (and elsewhere). It's like arguing that gas stations should advertise "Self-Service" rather than "Self-Serve." One can, but where does it get you?

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IF YOU ARE GONE (YOU ARE NOT THERE)...IF YOU WENT(YOU ARE NOT THERE)....IF YOU ARE MISSING (YOU ARE NOT THERE)....WHY USE TWO WORDS TOGETHER TO SAY THE SAME THING???

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We need to put this issue to rest. Again today I find the idiom used on a US news site, msnbc.msn.com: "By NBC New York
Police have identified the remains found on Monday in a Long Island marsh as those of Shannan Gilbert, a New Jersey woman who went missing in May 2010." I suspect it's become just as common now in American English as in British English, and, as it violates no rule of grammar I'm aware of, we all just need to accept it. As Warsaw Will says, don't use it if you don't like it, but don't put down those who do.

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@Nancy - if you had said in American English, you might have had a point, as this expression seems to grate over there. But in my branch of the English language (BrE), it is an absolutely normal expression. There is an easy answer to most of these questions: if you don't like it, don't use it. But don't criticise others for whom it is standard. I don't particularly like where you put 'truly' in your sentence, but that's your choice.

@porsche - thanks for introducing me to a new word - I'd never seen 'conniption' (mainly AmE) before.

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Well, Nancy, I'm sorry the idiom so upsets you, but like many idioms it appears to have ensconced itself in the English language (but in no other I'm aware of), so we might as well get used to it. I checked with Grammar Girl, and though she too is not fond of the usage, notes the following: "The reason went missing sounds strange to Americans is that it's a British idiom (1, 2). I've seen sources placing the first use of went missing as far back as 1944 (3), but my version of the Oxford English Dictionary places the first use in a 1958 book by British writer Norman Franks (4). The OED places gone missing in the same category as the phrase go native, which is used to describe a turn to or relapse into savagery or heathenism." (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/went-missi...) So if one must place blame, put it on the Brits. Meanwhile, I suspect most of us will refrain from wincing upon seeing/hearing its use.

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It truly sounds terrible and should not be used in the english language.

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Yes, Jimmy, they could have said that, but your version leaves open the possibility the two people took a hiking trip and later became missing. The "went missing during a hiking trip" leaves no doubt about the chronology; and besides, I kind of like the idiomatic "went missing"--it has a feeling of action about it that seems appropriate ;-).

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Well, providencejim, they could have simply said, "Mystery surrounds why search teams have been unable to find a father and daughter who are missing after a hiking trip in the Colorado mountains, a Colorado sheriff said Friday."

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I think "went missing" is now common in reporting (print and other media) because it serves a purpose not easily fulfilled by other means. Consider this news item I found today at MSNBC.com: "Mystery surrounds why search teams have been unable to find a father and daughter who went missing during a hiking trip in the Colorado mountains, a Colorado sheriff said Friday." You might argue, what about "disappeared"? Well, technically we don't know if they vanished, but we do know that according to friends and family they are missing. I have no problem with this usage.

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I believe both versions - go missing/went missing - are correct. The present, past and past participle of the verb "to go" is as follows: go/went/gone. In English, the participial forms of verbs are usually preceded by a form of the verb "to have". Consider the following:

- I go to the market on Mondays.

- I went to the market last Monday.
- I had gone to the market last week.

I would imagine the same applies to the compound verb:

- Don't talk to strangers or you could go missing.

- The child went missing a few days ago.
- The child had gone missing while on a shopping trip with his parents.

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My pet peeve about "went missing" is that it seems to imply the person missing had some preference about the circumstances, as though he/she chose to "go missing," just like if "I went fishing" or "Sam went shopping." (The implication is that I or Sam first decided that we would go fishing or shopping, and then we did it.) Except for rare cases, no one wants to "go missing." Why can't reporters simply stick with the present state of being: "At this time, Smith Smith is missing."?

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I'll bet Grammar Girl would have conniptions over "went AWOL."

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The OED has, under "go":

44. To pass into a certain condition. Chiefly implying deterioration. [...] to go missing: to get lost

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I did a little poking about on the internet. It turns out that Grammar Girl listed "went missing" as her pet peeve for 2008:

"...if any reporters are listening, here's the deal: "Went [sic] missing" actually isn't wrong, but it annoys a lot of Americans, so you might want to say "missing" or "disappeared" every once in a while."

For the record, peevish people should get real pets; it might relax them. But G. G. does note that "Went missing actually isn't wrong." That's because, as she herself notes. "go is quite a versatile verb." It generally implies movement, but a person may "go crazy" without actually traveling. Much.

Grammar Girl attributes the invasion of America by "went missing" to the press, and she's probably right. But if a a midwestern sheriff is using it, it's here to stay.

There is ample antipathy on both sides of the Ocean Sea to usages perceived to be "theirs." This is not new. Fitzedward Hall (now there's a name!) in "Modern English" (1873) cites "The London Review" (1864) as saying:

"The nineteenth century has witnessed the introduction of abundant Gallicisms, Germanisms, Americanisms, colonialisms, and provincialisms; nearly all needless, or easily to be supplied by more correct words or phrases."

They go on to say, "There is no nation, except our own easy-going one, that would tolerate such words as..." Ah, those easy-going Victorians. I think a little cross-pollination time-to-time is a good thing. Keeps the language from the knacker’s yard, as it were.

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Is it any worse than "go crazy", "go awry", "go nuts", or "go gaga over"?

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The phrase is a Britishism, if I may extend the appellation to an entire nation. It rings oddly in American ears, at first. Whether it is grammatical is irrelevant: it is an established idiom. It is a useful phrase, much better then "missing and presumed..." It has hope in it. Embrace it.

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