« Going, going, gone missing | Main | Apologies »

You hate "went missing"? I could care less

The objections to went missing this week followed the same pattern as the objections in 2009: “Ugh.” “Too British.” “Doesn’t make sense—missing isn’t a place you go to.”

No one is going to stop you from objecting to this or any other expression on aesthetic grounds. If you find went missing a disagreeably jargony piece of cop-talk, or if you dislike British expressions as much as some Brits dislike Americanisms, matters of taste are not subject to legislation, and no one is going to compel you to use expressions you dislike.

But what you can’t get away with is to claim that an expression widely understood and widely used is illogical or doesn’t make sense.

While languages have rules and patterns, they are not necessarily logical. Languages have idioms, and idioms, by definition, have meanings that do not coincide with the literal meanings of the constituent words. One commenter objected to turn up dead as not logical. But no one who hears it imagines that a corpse has suddenly acquired volition and motion.

Once idioms are established, speakers and writers understand them. I’m a little reluctant to open up a second front on could care less, but the people who object to that idiom always say, “No, you mean you couldn’t care less.” They dislike the expression, but they are never confused about the meaning.

Language being the most democratic thing we have, your objection to a word or a phrase or a grammatical or syntactical construction is one vote, as is mine. Those of us who edit enforce the standards and preferences of our publications. We should take care, however, to keep in mind that neither our house stylebook nor our individual preferences have statutory force. We should, of course, discuss what language is most effective and weigh our judgments—without preening ourselves over our peeves.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 PM | | Comments (6)


It's been said that we read best what we read most, referring to type. I suppose the same can be said for language: We understand best what we hear most, or read most. Good thing language is fluid. I enjoy your posts.

I'm hardly a semanticist, but I would contend that the expression "I couldn't care less" constitutes a kind of double negative, which would in essence cancel each negative element out, thus creating a net positive statement, i.e., basically, "I COULD care."

Does that reasoning make any sense?

And don't call me an anti-semantic. Some of my best friends are ardent semanticists. HA! (Patricia the T., maybe that's why you feel i can never answer a question directly, and am alway appearing to beat-around-the-bush, often drifting off on wild tangents?)

Prof. McI., as your masthead 'bio' states, you are definitely a "moderate prescriptivist", w/ I would argue, strong descriptivist tendencies. And for me, at any rate, that's just ducky. (The rules-and-regs DO matter, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all.)

I'm sure the lexicon of seeming gibberish (to some) created by the late Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) would drive most dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivists to drink.

Yet, for me, Dr. Seuss showed us that the English language could be fluid, dynamic, and open to all manner of creative, novel possibilities, while still respecting the time-honored rules of proper syntax, grammar, and such.

Thank God for the Dr. Suesses of this world.


Another great point efficiently made!

“Doesn’t make sense—missing isn’t a place you go to.”

That's a really stupid objection, because "go" or "went" are used with words that aren't places all the time. I can say that the potatoes in my fridge "went bad". A company can announce environmental improvements by exclaiming "We're going green!"

Besides, "missing" can be thought of as a location, namely all the places we haven't thought to look for a person. When someone goes missing, that implies they can't be found at the places we'd normally expect them, such as their home or place of work. "Gone missing" conveys that they have gone someplace (possibly against their will) and we don't know where that is.

Hear, hear! I think that's one of the most exciting parts of language--its ability to change and be personalized. Language exists for its users...not the other way around. Loved these past few posts!

Always gratifying when my readers say things better than I do. Here's an extended comment on this post from Facebook by "Norm DeGuerre":

It has never occurred to me to object to "went missing," and I do not yet understand why anybody would. Those who find fault with that idiom on the grounds of its being illogical must also, on principle, reject such commonplaces as "to go crazy" or "to get older."

It seems that whenever "You Don't Say" takes aim at any one particular fortress of Peevology, the faithful will invariably mount a rearguard action .. in defense of some other linguistic prejudice. Their comments are usually caged in the strident rhetoric of intolerance. Could it be that a significant portion of your readers are missing the point entirely?

Everyone has their [sic] preferences. I find "potential risk" or "potential danger" to be redundant and distastefully equivocal. But I have stopped shrieking about it. We could all stand a bit less vehemence.

To maintain one's preferences in one's own writing is to have what some might call a "prose style." In writerly circles, a prose style is considered a very good thing to have. However, a brutish insistence upon one's own preferences as "[the only] Proper English" is a hallmark of the bigot, or his more genteel cousin, the snob.

OED cites examples of "disrespected" as both an adjective and a verb going back to the 17th century. "Addicting," as an adjective, has been around for at least 80 years. Google turns up more than 40,000 hits for the phrase "potential risk of danger."

Tomorrow, the world will still be here, and we will all be a little bit older.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected