Grammar Wednesday

One of the things I love so much about Grammar Wednesdays is that, in teaching you things, I get to learn new things, too!

CaliforniaTeacherGuy sent me this on Sunday:

Dear Mrs. Chili,

Would you consider doing (or maybe you already have done) a rant about that seemingly ubiquitous and utterly abhorrent Americanism “to go missing”? Just a few minutes ago I was reading the local newspaper and stumbled across this paragraph:

A rare sea turtle–albeit a dead one–returned to the San Diego Natural Museum on Friday, three years after it went missing.


That whole sentence makes me shudder. First of all, if the turtle is dead, how did it return to the museum of its own volition? And then there’s that loathsome phrase, “went missing,” as if “missing” were a destination in the English countryside–along with Little Missing, Greater Missing, Missing Camden, and Hither Missing. (Get the picture?!)

Let me know what you think of my idea. If I see it on your blog next Wednesday, I’ll assume you thought well of it.
Not only did I think well of CTG’s question, but it sent me immediately off on a giddy, geeky quest to get to the proverbial bottom of the matter. I’d never stopped to question this structure, myself; I just always took it for an idiom (though my impression was that it began as a British expression) and left it at that.

The source of CTG’s frustration, as I read it, is that he’s taking “go” to mean “to move or proceed,” as in I go to the gym four days a week. He rightly points out that “missing” isn’t a destination – one can’t actually go there. Further, I’d be willing to bet that his angst is furthered by the idea that “going” involves some volition on the part of the subject and, generally, one does not kidnap or otherwise cause oneself to disappear.

“Go,” however, has many different definitions (I was surprised to see how many!), and the one that works with the phrase to go missing is the same one that we use to express things like to go crazy or to go amiss; namely the fourth definition in my favorite dictionary, “to become as specified.”

Someone much smarter than I wrote a comprehensive piece on this very question. Go here to read; he’ll make more sense than I did here.

Sooza emailed me yesterday to ask if I would shed some light on semicolons. I had a flash of memory of having discussed those here before, so I did some checking and found the post here. Let me know if you need anything clarified.

Happy Wednesday, All! Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!



Filed under Grammar

28 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. I will, of course, be waiting to see the comments of the erudite persons who haunt your blog!

  2. Yeah, CTG – me, too! They are all VERY smart and some (hi, Jangari!) blow my mind on a regular basis. I love reading the things they have to say, but I’m not sure I said anything wrong or controversial enough to set off a proverbial bomb this week…

  3. Ah, Little Missing, it’s right on the Thames, isn’t? Just outside of Kensington if I remember correctly.

  4. Believe it or not, you’ve stumbled upon my particular field of theoretical syntax – complex predication. How fortuitous.

    First and foremost, several English verbs have undergone a process called semantic bleaching, wherein they lose some of the meaning they once contained in certain contexts. For instance, go once refereed only to physical motion, and not necessarily with a goal in mind, that would be something more specific like or approach where you must specify the goal. Anyway, go can mean physical motion, or it can really be just a placeholder verb, because the bit that comes after it does all the semantic work.

    In this instance, most of the meaning is filled by missing, but not quite all, because there’s still a difference between he went missing and he is missing. The difference between these two is one of ‘aspect’, which is usually simplistically defined as tense within tense. Aspect characterises the way an event pans out with respect to time, but independently of primary tense. He is missing describes a static event, unchanging with respect to time (time as far as the boundaries of the event go, anyway). But he went missing describes the change from a prior state, in which he was not missing, to the current state, in which he is missing.

    The idea of a complex predicate, is that the ‘verb’ is conceived of consisting of more than one element, in this case, a verb go and an adjectival participle or whatever one calls it, missing. each conveys something to the overall complex verb, the complex predicate, such that changing either one to another verb, or another adjectival participle, would change the meaning of the overall verb.

    These are very common in Australian languages, as typically, the class of word corresponding to ‘verb’ has only a few members, sometimes as high as a hundred, sometimes as low as 5. Wagiman has about 45. Most of the predicative power comes from complex predicates, combining one of the few verbs with any number of other various word classes, some languages even have a separate class of word altogether, and forming complex predicates is its main task.

    Here’s an example:
    nawu-ndi ‘give’ + lalat-ta ‘scatter’ = lalat nawu ‘share out’.

  5. John

    Usage prescriptions are sometimes founded on logical or “theoretical” concerns like this: “missing is not a place you can go to.”

    I think it’s always useful to ignore such concerns and instead look at the relevant evidence – which you did.

  6. A few confessions:

    1) Mrs. Chili, I TRULY love your Grammar Wednesday posts. They are a BRILLIANT idea on your part.

    2) You crack me up, and it makes me so so so happy that you are one of the consistent bloggers.

    3) The only reason I even looked at the comments for this post was to see what Jangari had to say about the whole thing. I am happy to say that I made it ALL THE WAY to “semantic bleaching” before my head started to hurt. WOO HOO!!!

  7. Cassie, you’re so funny! I was reading Jangari’s comments to Organic Mama this afternoon, and I was excited to make it ALL the way through and still be able to follow along!

    I think these Grammar Wednesday commenters are making me smarter! (they’re certainly making me double-check my work before I hit ‘publish,’ I can tell you THAT for sure!!)

  8. Tell me about it, MrsChili. I must have re-read that 4 times before I was satisfied that it made sense, and I’m not even certain it sounds as good as in my head.

  9. “I’m not even certain it sounds as good as in my head.”

    Yeah – welcome to the world of a writer!

    Really, though? I was able to follow along, though I could understand why folks might have trouble with it. A lot of it is sort of ineffable and conceptual – very subtle stuff that would be extremely difficult to explain adequately. Given what you had to work with, I think you did a stellar job.

  10. wordlily

    Jangari, your comments make sense to me, too, for what it’s worth. I was thinking it must be something like that, but I’m not versed in the technical terminology well enough to explain it.

  11. John

    For those readers who are interested in what Jangari has to say but who don’t know much about linguistics: here’s a crash course

  12. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the abominable phrase “gone missing”:

  13. John! THANKS for that link! I’m very much enjoying this informal education in linguistics you and Jangari are giving me, and am thinking of seeking out an actual class at a local university. This stuff is FASCINATING!

    Oh, and I wanted to tell you this funny thing (stick with me because this a funny thing that may be long in the telling). A while ago, you (I think it was you – it could have been Jangari) mentioned something in a comment that, judging from some of the things I’d said, you thought I was a Whorfian.

    I “collect” language. While I’m reading, I keep a journal with me into which I write passages or phrases that strike me as having that clear ring of truth – stuff that resonates in my intellect or my soul. I was looking through that book a few weeks ago for a quote about mothers that I remembered putting in there (for my Mother’s Day post on theinnerdoor) and came across this from The Other Side of Silence by Neisser:

    a change in language can transform our appreciation of the cosmos

    She was quoting Whorf – I noted that in my collection of the passage, though I didn’t know who Whorf was at the time (and, to my embarrassment, I have to admit that I didn’t take the time to find out). I was studying ASL at the time, and I DID notice that, as my proficiency in that language increased, I started to understand things differently. I didn’t have words to describe that – I’m not sure I do even now – but I latched on to that quote because it spoke to the actual experience I was having in learning to think and express myself in a new language.

    I LOVE this stuff…

    CTG – I thought of you this morning when, on my way home from work, NPR was talking about the three American soldiers who “went missing” several weeks ago….

  14. Just so no one gets the wrong idea, that’s Benjamin Lee Whorf, amateur linguist, as opposed to Lieutenant Whorf, the Klingon from Star Trek, who would have quoted something much more reminiscent of the Byzantine Warriors upon which he is based.

    Excellent quote though, MrsChili, I might have to remember that one. By ASL, do you mean American Sign Language? Because that’s fascinating. I just met someone who speaks Auslan, Australian Sign Language, and we were discussing its brilliance. I love sign languages.

    And I think it may have been me who called you a Whorfian (not a Klingon), in a comment on my post about inalienable body parts, the dog is wagging in the tail.

  15. YES, Jangari, that’s when it happened! Ever since, I’ve been interested in finding out what the man had to say (and no; Klingons weren’t much interested in languages, per se, though I seem to remember Lt. Whorf saying something about how the Klingon tongue has something like 70 different words for “war”).

    Also yes; I studied American Sign Language for a significant number of years. My hope was to be able to teach English literacy skills to Deaf kids, and I did half my internship in a Deaf program in a (not-so-local) high school. It was a disappointing experience, to say the least; the education I saw these kids receiving was just slightly better than nothing and the woman who was assigned to be my mentor was more interested in handing me her toughest students than she was in helping me LEARN, so I ended up switching intership schools halfway through the year (which was fantastic, as I got to work with the woman who inspired me to be a teacher in the first place).

    My ASL skills have steadily gone to hell since then. Deaf folks tend to live in clusters – and generally around where the services are – and there is no call for an English teacher with ASL skills in my area. I’m glad I had the experience, though – I learned an AWFUL lot from it – not the least of which being the truly transformative power of language – and I don’t regret anything that happened. I just wish I had the means – and the opportunity – to continue my practice in the language; I am sad that I have to stop and think about how to express myself in it, and even then, I speak like a little child.

    (okay, so maybe I have one tiny little regret

  16. John

    I think I mentioned Whorf as well, when mrschili said something about good writing aiding clear thinking.

  17. RIGHT, John; you told me I was a Whorfian here, Jangari told me so in the comments to HIS blog. I’m betting that, since I’ve been diagnosed by two separate experts, I can safely believe the results. I suppose I’ve got my summer reading lined up now, haven’t I?

  18. Sue Basko

    “Gone missing” and “went missing” are incorrect usage in the US English language. It is ghetto speak that has somehow wound its way onto television, news, and into print. It sounds uneducated and idiotic.

    The boy has been missing since Saturday.
    NOT: The boy went missing on Saturday.

    “Missing” is a state of being. It is NOT an “action” verb.

    Think of comparisons using other “state of being” words. For example, “elated.”

    The boy was elated at his new toy.
    NOT: The boy went elated at his new toy.

    OR: “happy.” The boy is happy.
    NOT: The boy went happy.

    OR: “intelligent.” She is intelligent.
    NOT: She went intelligent.

    “Went” is to locomote to a different location. If one is going someplace to do something, “went” can be used as a “helping verb” for the action verb.


    We went shopping. We went bowling. The boy went camping.

    BUT NOT: We went happy. We gone educated. The boy went intelligent. His parents went proud.

    NOW DO YOU GET IT??? thanks, Sue Basko, a grammarian at heart. I gone stupid!!!!

  19. Easy, Sue – take a breath.

    I don’t agree that the structure sounds “uneducated and idiotic,” but I’ll concede that it sounds informal. One thing I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) from my work here is that language continually evolves (ask my linguist friends about that). The fact that the structure can be backed up by a dictionary definition, as I mentioned in my answer to CTG’s question, makes the use of “go” in that application acceptable to me; the phrase has been used so often that it’s been recognized as part of the language by the folks who keep watch on such things. While I’m not sure I’d appreciate its use in a formal paper, I think that it’s fine in a newspaper article.

  20. Sue Basko

    NO. This usage is not acceptable. And the reason there are thousands of Google hits to sites where people complain of this usage should indicate to you that this does not sound acceptable to most people who are at least intelligent enough to use a computer.

    The dictionary reference is to a usage that does not apply in the U.S. to a person who is not where expected. It is a British usage referring to other situations.

    The discussion is about the usage that is proper in the U.S. news when the wherabouts of a child or adult are not known to those who care. This is a relative state of being: No one is “missing” from their own life. Some others simply do not know where that person is located.

    “Missing is a state of being.” “Go” is an action verb.

    One can go shopping or go for a walk.

    One does not go elated, go happy, go intelligent, or go proud.


    If a child “went missing,” does he then “come found”?

    The Ramones’s song, “I’ve Gone Mental,” is one example of bad grammar, but they were not trying to be grammarians. They were punk rockers.

    “Gone stupid” is in common colloquial usage as a derogatory or funny term.

    If a news story reporting on school scores on standardized testing announced that the kids had all “gone stupid,” we would laugh or cringe.

    If a news story reports that a child has “gone missing,” many of us also laugh or cringe. The seriousness of a child being abducted or wandering off is eclipsed by the idiotic-sounding incorrect grammar. (And yes, it sounds idiotic to MANY of us!)







    But the boy did NOT “go missing,” or “went missing.”

  21. Sue,
    The OED has as one of the meanings of “go”: “To pass into a certain condition. Chiefly implying deterioration.” It is in this use that we find “go missing”. It was originally British, but as far as I can tell its usage is the same in the UK as it is in NA. This is the OED’s earliest citation:

    1944 E. BENNETT-BREMNER Front-Line Airline (1945) viii. 50 Qantas Empire Airways have been called upon to conduct searches for missing aircraft, and it was only natural, therefore, that being ‘Johnny-on-the-spot’ they should be asked to join in when aircraft went missing.

    I think the American Heritage Dictionary has this meaning under 10b: “To come to be in a certain condition: go mad; hair that had gone gray.”

    If you accept that it is a British usage, then I don’t see why you don’t accept it as a NA usage, since it is used in NA with the same meaning.

    Analogous forms are “go native,” “go public”, “go Hollywood,” “go mad”, “go numb”, “go nuts”, etc. Certainly there are forms that don’t work with “go” and use “get” instead: “get sick”, “get dizzy”, etc.

    If it sounds idiotic to you, that’s fine. But it does not therefore follow that it is ungrammatical. Clearly it is grammatical and acceptable English for many writers.

  22. Sue Basko

    Let me try to explain it better. Or gooder, if you prefer, John. Lots of people say that, too.

    “Missing” can be used as a verb, or as an adjective that connotes a state-of-being.

    In the sentence: “The boy is missing,” ‘missing’ is an adjective. It describes the boy’s state of being as experienced by other people. Since we are simply describing the boy’s state of being, and not ascribing any action to the boy for having caused that state of being, an “action verb” is incorrect.

    There are other verbs that in their “ing” form may be used as a verb or as an adjective. For example, “dying” can be used to describe a state of being, or it can be used to describe an act. In most instances, we do not ascribe action to the person/subject that would cause the ‘dying’. But we have heard, at least in popular dramas, “Don’t go dying on me.” That implies that the person/subject is taking action to die — or at least, that the person might, at least in theory, have some control over whether or not he or she dies at that time.

    The example from the U.K. military seems to be of a soldier who has “gone missing,” that is, intentionally “gone AWOL” (away without official leave). I believe the Brits would say that the “soldier is missing” or “has been missing” and the source of his absence is that he “went missing.”

    But a child or other vulnerable person in the U.S. whose whereabouts are unknown has not “gone missing.”

    The U.S. equivalent to “gone missing” might be “ran away.” These are “terms of art,” if you will, or colloquialisms. We all know that a person who “runs away” is not running. The person might be walking, driving, or taking the bus. To “run away” means to make an intentional departure from parents or home, with the implication being that there is disagreement with or rebellion against authority. The British “gone missing” is NOT what we in the U.S. mean when we are speaking or writing of a child (or other vulnerable person) that cannot be located by his or her family due to factors not within his or her control.

    When we say that a child “is missing,” we mean that the child is in a ‘state of being’ of being in a location unknown to his or her family. If we believe the child might have “run away,” we could say so. But we would not say that the child “went missing,” because we do not mean this. If we do mean this, we would NOT use the British colloquialism, but the American colloquialism “ran away.”

    A U.S. news report of a child/ woman/ other vulnerable person who cannot be located “is missing.” This person has not “gone missing.”

    A person who is very sick and approaching the end of life “is dying.” The person has not “gone dying.”

    A dune that is being worn away “is eroding.” The dune has not “gone eroding.”

    The English language is changing. But we wish to see it evolve, not devolve.

    “Gone missing” sounds incorrect, because it is. I put it in the same category as when people pronounce Iraq as eye-rack’ rather than eh-rock’.
    Yes, our current President does this, and he went to Yale. It is still incorrect.

  23. Pingback: Ten Things Tuesday « The Blue Door

  24. Sue, I appreciate your enthusiasm for the topic, but let’s keep it polite, please. Both John and I are using reputable sources to back up our claims (we both, to one extent or another, do this sort of thing for a living). What we’re investigating here are where the lines are between what’s considered “right” and “wrong,” and one of the wonderful things about language is that those lines are always – ALWAYS – shifting. “Change” isn’t necessarily “erosion,” either. There’s no call for a confrontational tone.

  25. Sue Basko

    The lines of language are always shifting. However, there are some words, phrases, or pronunciations that can make the user appear uneducated or of a lower-class background. These “errors” are always particular to time and place. What is now considered improper may, in 200 years, or in England now, be considered proper.

    In the U.S., we claim to be a class-free society, but this is not actually true. Class is indicated and judged by many factors, with language usage being a primary factor.

    “Gone missing” and “went missing” are flagrant usage errors at this time in the U.S. This is like saying “set” for “sit,” or like using “Me and her” as the subject of a sentence. These errors earmark the person and can cause them to appear unqualified for a job, a marriage, or a social-based friendship.

    To pretend that there is no dividing line, no signifiers, gives a false impression of mobility within our society. If a person wishes to overcome language-usage barriers so that he or she can have social or job mobility, he or she may look on on the internet for advice.

    Gone missing: Is there some U.K. colloquialism that is used in some contexts? There appears to be one in very limited military usage. Does this make this correct usage in the U.S., so that the user will not appear to be a nudnik on the job? No. I would not be surprised to hear of young reporters be passed over for jobs or internships for such usage.

    Compare this to tattoos. In the past, tattoos were considered something that definitely earmarked a person as very lower class and dangerous. A tattoo signified that a person had been in prison or was a criminal or gang member. Today, many young people get tattoos and consider them fun. However, if a person is trying to get a serious job, he or she had better not show any tattoos. Why? Because the person interviewing you is likely to be of the generation when tattoos were for gangsters.

    Using incorrect grammar, such as “gone missing” or “went missing” may be acceptable to some elements in society, but, like a big tattoo across the back of one’s neck, it signifies a lower social ranking that can interfere with what a person may want to accomplish in life.

    It is like saying “set” for “sit” or using “Me and him” as the subject of a sentence or using double negatives. The hearer understands what the speaker means. But the hearer hears so much more — clues to the background, experiences, family, and education of the speaker. Those “clues” may say the person is not worldly enough to be trusted in a position of authority in a global economy.

    The bottom line is that a person can very subtly lose many opportunities due to using nonstandard English.

  26. Sue, here are the other citations from the OED.

    1958 F. NORMAN Bang to Rights 56
    The snout had gone missing.

    1963 Sat. Even. Post 15 June 4/2 Don’t go too ‘arty’ on us. 1965 Listener 16 Dec. 983/1
    Within twelve years 2,500,000 – one in seven – had gone missing.

    As you can see, they are not military uses. And I don’t see how the UK usage is at all different from the NA usage. To say that something or someone has gone missing is to say the same thing in the UK and NA, as far as I can see. To argue that it can be applied to soldiers but not to children seems strange.

    To argue that “go missing” is wrong because we are describing a state of being and not ascribing an action is mistaken, I think. All these forms with “go” (go missing, go mad, go grey, etc.) are idioms, and might not make logical sense, but language is not logical. When we find language that doesn’t fit our theory of grammar, we need to change our theory to fit the data, not simply dismiss the language as incorrect.

    You are now arguing that it is wrong because it is considered a usage error in the US. Fair enough, if this is true. But you have provided no evidence. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary states it is “chiefly British”, but does not say it is wrong. I can’t find it in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Garner’s modern American Usage. If there is an American usage book that condemns it, I’d be interested to know.

  27. I agree with John – I’m curious to see evidence that this usage is incorrect or unacceptable in formal language. I’ve seen evidence that it is unacceptable to you, Sue, and I’ve seen you make claims (which I have no reason to disbelieve) that I could find evidence that other individuals find it unacceptable. But whence does that lack of acceptance stem? Where is it stated as incorrect for the language as a whole, as opposed to merely incorrect for certain people’s individual preferences?

  28. Dave

    “Went” and “have gone” are often used to describe changes in state, rather than changes in actual physical location. Whether or not it is strictly correct, I think it is acceptable.

    Her hair went grey.
    Things have gone from bad to worse.

    From another angle, “missing” is as specific a place as “away” or “elsewhere”. Can you point to away? Can you draw a map to elsewhere? Again, these are accepted if not strictly correct usages, so I would include missing as well.

    He has gone away.
    He has gone elsewhere.
    He has gone missing.

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