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Going, going, gone missing

A colleague tells me that one of The Sun’s readers asked him why we use the constructions go missing and went missing, instead of disappeared or vanished.

I wrote about went missing four years ago, but apparently it is still getting up people’s noses. People like the late James. J. Kilpatrick. Perhaps because it is originally a British expression, like “getting up one’s nose.”

The thing to be said for it is that it is a neutral term, which I think must be why the police seem to have grown fond of it. Missing people may have been abducted, or fled the jurisdiction, or merely wandered off. If you don’t know how they came to be missing, using the least alarmist term is appropriate.

The objection that went missing makes no syntactical sense is persuasive only if you deny the existence of idioms. If you go free, where is free? How do you go one better? Or have a go at? If you understand to go missing as being absent for reasons unknown, then you can’t complain that it makes no sense, merely that you do not find it aesthetically satisfying. Well, hard cheddar.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:13 PM | | Comments (18)


Talk about synchronicity (or maybe it's serendipity): yesterday I started reading A Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch, and he talks about "go missing" being seen as objectionable by some. It was the first time I'd heard of it being problematic, but, then again, maybe it's because I'm British...

That "go missing" is, by your own admission, cop-speak is only another reason to eschew this fingernails-on-chalkboard expression.

Prof, McI.,

Hmm......... is the verb, "to go" (past tense, "went") one of those versatile ambitransitive verbs? A verb that requires a subject, but doesn't necessarily need an object, in all cases?

The awkwardness, or to your earlier point, the aesthetic dissatisfaction, of the phrase "went missing', for me, lies in the tacit implication that the person who disappeared had some intent in making themselves scarce, as if the state of "missing" could be some desired, physical destination, rather than merely a situational state of being.(Or more precisely, NOT being here, nor there. HA!)

It could also connotes a vague, open-ended catch-all term which 'the authorities' might use to keep all their options open, until more hard circumstantial evidence comes to light. The 'lost' individual, (or individuals), could have wandered off, been abducted, taken a hike-----any number of possible actions, intended, or otherwise.

So I guess "went missing" is as good as any other obfuscating tactic that law enforcement can come up with for the media until they narrow down the possibilities.

Of course, inanimate objects, personal possessions, and such, can "go missing", as well. "Where did I put those darn bifocals?"

Sadly, Including one's mind, or moral compass. HA!


I think you're safe with "went missing" until you hear yourself say, "She done went missing on us" (or would that be, "She done gone missing on us"?)

Sometimes I think people complain about these things just so they have something to complain about.

In my youth as an editor "go missing" was generally a little too informal for UK newspapers. It's come along nicely, probably because it is so useful. Here's the excellent Lynnequist on the subject:

Of course "go+adjective" idioms implying a change of state are common enough. Go crazy. Go quiet. Go easy. Go sick. Go Dutch.

Went missing has always sounded rustic to me. I apply the same logic to this phrase as Bryan Garner does to impact as a transitive verb. In his Modern American Usage, he calls the verb form unnecessary because its function is just as “ably performed” by the verbs affect or influence (p. 445). The same may be said, I think, of went missing: its function is just as ably (and more economically) performed by the verbs disappeared or vanished.

Apparently I read too many British mysteries, because it sounds perfectly normal to me.

it sounds perfectly normal to me, too.
with regard to cop-speak: while there are constructions that should be forbidden for obvious reasons ("non-life-threatening injuries" being the most grievous, surely), I would suggest that a term shouldn't be verboten in copy simply because it's cop-speak.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm on the cops' side on this one.
go figure.

"Goes missing" for me is as irritating as "turned up dead," or "turned up missing." Literally speaking, one can't "turn up" at all if one is dead or missing. How about "found dead" and "disappeared?" Or are those too direct? I don't know if those are "cop-speak" or Hollywood's idea of how police actually talk. I will say that I trust the police far more than I trust Hollywood.

Well, the argument from us Hollywood-cum-hollyhockers would be that (a) go missing is what we say, so buggerit, and (b) disappeared ain't the same because it carries the sense of "vanished into thin air", which ain't what we mean. And one can turn up dead, I fear, and many of the missing do.

To the extent that objections to go missing are that idiomatic expressions to not mean what they literally say, I have to answer, well, yeah.

Hmm..... sounds like someone just got off the 'turn up' truck, don't it?

I think i'll go make myself scarce, before I get into any more hot water.

Rest assured, I won't have 'gone missing', 'cause y'all can't get rid of me that darn easily.

Ta! Ta!


If one is unfortunately dead, one doesn't "turn up," which implies one arrives, alive, someplace. One is discovered dead. Or found dead.

It's also true, from a literal standpoint, that "everything" can't "come up roses" -- the stems are too narrow, among many reasons -- but they wrote a whole song about that eventuality.

And inanimate objects can turn up, so it's a bit rough on dead bodies to exclude them.

People us "gone missing" because they want to sound British (English). Well if you're not English or from the British Isles use "has disappeared". Between that change and now "back in the day" ... I'm starting to get TRULY pissed off. How about "a long time ago"!

And what about "signage" for signs and "closures" for "is closed"?? People think they sound more educated and in the process they simply seem more asinine.

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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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