Proper grammar gone missing

October 02, 2005|By: JUNE CASAGRANDE

{LDQUO}Went missing," "gone missing" and their root form "go missing"

are horrible, grammatically indefensible expressions that should be

banned from the English language, and anyone who uses them should be

tarred and feathered, so say two prominent language columnists and

countless grammar sticklers.

"'Went missing' must go," the Writers Art columnist James

Kilpatrick wrote in 2003. "The idiom has worn out its novelty."


Self-appointed Word Guy and syndicated columnist Rob Kyff chose a

differently conjugated victim, "go missing," but the sentiment was

the same. "This annoying pest is far from missing; it seems to show

up in every TV newscast, e.g. 'Her husband went missing last week.'"

Shari in Costa Mesa concurs with the pros.

"It really annoys me when people, including the news media, use

the term 'went missing.' As in 'she went missing in October.' Is this

proper English or is it some sort of slang? Whatever it is, it just

doesn't sound right!"

In this way, grammar sticklers are a lot like clergymen: They're

really good at telling you what not to do. (Don't say that; don't

touch that; don't think that; don't tell anyone.) But they're hard

pressed to offer any useful ideas on what you can do instead. You

see, neither Kilpatrick nor Kyff offered a single suggestion on what

to say instead of "went missing."

So I did what any lazy or cowardly word columnist would do: I

pinned the whole mess on poor little Shari, who I figured would be

most likely to respond to an e-mail from me.

What, I asked her, would you say instead?

Unlike Kyff and Kilpatrick, Shari gave it the old college try:

"How about: 'The soldier has been missing since ... '; 'The

soldier was listed as missing ... '; 'The soldier became missing ...


All noble attempts, all useful in limited instances, but are they

really sufficient substitutes for the all-purpose "went missing"?

I'll let Shari answer that, as she did in the very next sentence

of her e-mail about "went missing."

"I guess it is just a slang phrase that I will have to get used

to," she concluded.

The best and most scholarly alternatives I can come up with -- "He

manifested himself missing," "He joined the hallowed ranks of those

whom we call missing," "He done up and got his self missing," "Call

him Mister Missing" -- just don't cut it.

"Lost" doesn't quite capture it, "absent" would be wrong in many

cases, and though "disappeared" would work in some cases, do we

really want to limit our options to one that suggests a magician and

a big puff of smoke?

Yes, "went missing" is grammatically nonsensical. "Went" is a verb

that is usually followed by an indirect object, as in "went to the

mall." But "went" and other conjugated forms of "to go" are almost

never followed by adjectives.

But it none other than Kilpatrick who notes that, "Nothing in the

rules of English composition requires that idioms be plausible -- or

even grammatical."

And it is this defiant nature of idioms that make it OK to say

that Shari "dreamed up" some new ideas, that Kyff "threw up," and

that Kilpatrick "went crazy."

* JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer. She can be reached at


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