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Missing in action

Over at Crawford Kilian’s Ask the English Teacher blog, some readers are in a lather over the expression went missing. Apparently people find it ungrammatical or illiterate or just plain grating. Here are his posts:

We have plowed that ground before ouselves:

Professor Kilian points out that the term is common in both British and Canadian English, and any reader of British murder mysteries or viewer of Midsomer Murders would find the term commonplace. The ears it offends appear to be American. (Where do you imagine that English came from in the first place?)

But it is a serviceable expression, with a specific meaning not otherwise provided so economically.

Missing is a state. We have no quarrel with saying that someone is missing or was missing. The difficulty is in expressing how the person got that way. One suggestion is disappeared; but disappeared has a sinister ring to it, suggesting that the absent person fled or was abducted. Disappeared doesn’t seem quite the word for someone who took off for a long weekend and forgot to stop delivery of the paper.

We don’t seem to have a problem with was reported missing, or at least no one has yet written to complain about it. But it looks, on examination, odd as well. It is a shortened, idiomatic expression meaning that someone made a report that another person was absent without explanation. To go missing is a short, idiomatic expression meaning that at a given point, someone identified another person as being absent without explanation. The latter is necessary because the time the report was made is probably not the time that it was noticed that the person was gone.

If you want to come up with an expression that encompasses the same nuance of meaning as economically, be my guest. Otherwise, get over it. It’s not as if I’m suggesting that we start writing about trams and lifts and lorries, or using plural verbs with government.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:23 PM | | Comments (3)


How odd that one of my biggest irritants - and there are too many to recount here - in both written and spoken English should appear in this space. "Gone missing," "went missing," and "turned up missing" - may have subtle meanings, but are often just plain risible. In the same category is "turned up dead" - a real feat except in the X-Files and English laboratories. Try "disappeared" or even "vanished " or "has not been seen since...". Why news organizations insist upon using expressions out of 1940s movies - which I like- when other language presents itself is a mystery. Otherwise we might as well refer to prison as the "slammer," or the "joint," death as "buying the farm," and any other dated expression that comes to mind. Sometimes a lack of subtlety is just what's needed - and comes to the point more quickly.

"went missing" strikes me as an affectation, John, picked up and often used with "person of interest." I don't find it ungrammatical, just a little fake since the only place I've seen it used previously is in British crime novels you mention.

I agree with Pam that it sounds a bit affected -- something that we'll get over as it's used more, no doubt. But there remains a wee problem in my mind: volition. See my post:

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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