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"went missing"

Posted by Smokey Stover on July 18, 2006

In Reply to: "Went missing" posted by Sean Fahey on July 18, 2006

: Over the last year I have started to hear news reporters use the phrase "went missing". What is the difference between missing and went missing, and when did this start?

I don't know when it started, but I think it is a Britishism, and was adopted by American journalists because it's different and probably because it sounds British. Not everyone is happy with it. James Kilpatrick, noted word-warrior, has this:
"'Went missing' should go missing
Chicago Sun-Times, Apr 17, 2005 by James J. Kilpatrick

The Court of Peeves, Crotchets & Irks opens its April assizes with a motion from Phyllis Urban of Bedford, Ind., to ban such grammatical insults as "the fugitive went missing in March." The court has banned "went missing" before, to absolutely no effect, but willingly will ban it again. Into exterior darkness, go!

The primary objection to "went missing" or "turned up missing" is that it makes no syntactical sense. It is all very well to say that Dagwood "went sailing," or that Cathy "went swimming," for we understand the underlying infinitive form. They have gone to sail or gone to swim, but how does a fugitive go to miss?

The only kind thing that can be said of the idiomatic "gone missing" is that the irksome construction is well-understood. We grasp what the writer or speaker is trying to say, to wit, "She ain't here." The same faint praise could be heaped upon "It don't make no difference how we treat them parts of speech."

He mentions "turned up missing" in the same sentence as "went missing," but the expressions have a different history. "Turned up missing," however preposterous it may sound, has a long history on the American continent. Both are easily understood; "turned up missing" is understood as "turned out to be missing," whish is further understood as "a search for him turned up the fact that he is no longer present."

In my opinion, there is actually a use for "went missing." It permits one to say WHEN his absence was noted or can be deduced, and avoids certain circumlocutions that would probably make better grammatical sense. Or possibly not. Is it better to say "he became missing sometime after 6 p.m."? Or "he was observed to be missing late yesterday." Perhaps the purists would prefer, "It was noticed that he was not present...."

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