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Went missing? Get lost

Little did I realize going in to this that bringing up the went missing issue would be like challenging Lou Dobbs on immigration.

A sampling of a million or so Google hits
(British and Commonwealth citations omitted)

The Night My Sister Went Missing by Carol Plum-Ucci

Went Missing: Unsolved Great Lakes Shipwreck Mysteries by Frederick Stonehouse

The Day I Went Missing by Jennifer Miller

A 19-year-old man in a wheelchair went missing from the state-run facility for disabled people where he lives for seven hours and injured his knee before he was found, officials say. [Boston Herald]

Navy Pier security officers were working with Chicago Police to find a 16-year-old high school boy who went missing during a field trip to Navy Pier on Thursday morning. []

A dog, who went missing after Hurricane Wilma two years ago, was reunited with her family.[Associated Press]

People go missing far more frequently than is reported, so why is it the white female gets the attention?

In 1999, my best friend (an african american school teacher, 31) went missing over 30 days in Missouri. [Two reader responses on Anderson Cooper’s blog on CNN]

I have a particular issue where one of my vault robots went missing from Vault Management. [Reader’s post on the Symantec Technology Network]

Mysterious transfers started when ATM card went missing [Chicago Sun-Times headline]

Seven years ago, then-23-year-old Amy Bradley went missing while on a Caribbean cruise with her family. []

“The Day Aristotle Went Missing: A Parable” [Title of Harvard Business Online article]

Pfc. Warren Rarick went missing on a Korean hill in '51 [San Francisco Chronicle headline]

Mason City marks 10 years since anchorwoman went missing [Quad-City Times headline]

A Connecticut teen who went missing for a year is expected to return to school Monday. [WTSP Tampa, Florida]

The commentary

You want I should try Lexis-Nexis next?

The factual context: Went missing is a neutral term for the action by which people, pets or objects come to be absent without ready explanation. It can imply abduction, flight, innocent wandering off or, apparently, software malfunction. As a shorthand for the act of disappearing from notice, it is idiomatic. The expression, apparently British in origin, is increasingly common in American usage, as the samples above indicate.

The social context: It grates on some readers. It is unfamiliar or disagreeable to their tastes, and therefore it is affected and illiterate (quite a straddle there), ungrammatical (how?) and a stench in the nostrils of all right-thinking people.

The question when an expression appears to come into vogue is whether to accept it or resist it, and the choice is almost always one of personal preference. I continue to distinguish between gauntlet and gantlet in my own writing, though I recognize that the tide is running against me. You are welcome to choose otherwise (unless you write for The Sun, in which case I am obliged to pull you over and issue a citation for violating house style).

Some stands are principled and defensible: Maintaining the distinction between imply and infer preserves an important difference of meaning in the face of sloppiness, carelessness and outright ignorance. Judging an idiom like went missing is a different matter. The important things to determine are whether the expression in fact carries a useful meaning, and whether one’s opinion is informed or merely idiosyncratic.

I acknowledge formally that my own taste for British murder mysteries may have warped my judgment. It’s a fair cop.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:58 AM | | Comments (5)


I think it's time that "went missing" and all its misbegotten offspring "go missing" permanently. And Lou Dobbs is quite right about immigration, but very likely wrong about everything else.

Now, John, come on. Your blog post before this one, "Smart People," clearly attracted a few; they decided to up the ante. (Even though the ante, in this case, was generally pro as far as I can tell).

I'm willing to bet a farthing or two that this phrase, like many others, has some sort of nautical subcontext. (A handy dodge if ever there was one.) might have a clue, I'll go snoop.

The best of the Googled lot?

"BBC NEWS | England | Foot-and-mouth phial 'went missing' "

You can't make these up ...

I'm late to this party. But "go missing" so grates on my nerves that I have to pipe up.

Yes, it's idiomatic but it's being treated as if it's not. In a story about a disappearance, to say a person "went missing" implies a knowledge of intent on behalf of the missing. As if the person "went to the library" or "went to the bathroom" or "went away." The whole point of the story is that we don't know where the person is or what happened to the person. Thus, it's inaccurate to assume the person "went" somewhere.

John, not exactly on the "went missing" theme, but I thought you and my fellow fans of your blog might enjoy this great YouTube piece on "The Impotence of Proofreading" as much as I did:


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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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