Sunday, June 8, 2014

Random thoughts on the expression go missing

  • Have you seen the bread knife? It seems to have gone missing.
When we say that something or somebody went or has gone missing, we mean that it or that person (has) disappeared: the thing or person are not where we expect to find them. It is sometimes considered informal, but is often used in the British media to refer to people who have disappeared, especially in time of war and natural disasters etc.
In the past this use was mainly British, but it seems to be being increasingly used in the American media, and not all Americans are happy about it. In fact so many wrote and complained to GrammarGirl about it, that she nominated it her Peeve of the Year for 2007.
Even the BBC are in two minds about it, apparently. Writing in the New York Times in 2004, the late William Safire quoted from their style guide:
Go missing is inelegant and unpopular with many people, but its use is widespread. There are no easy synonyms. Disappear and vanish do not convince, and they suggest dematerialization, which is rare.
But there doesn't seem to be anything about it in the Guardian or The Economist style guides, nor in the standard usage books.
I decided to have a bit of a closer look.

Go missing, gone missing and went missing at Ngram

These two graphs show the rise in the use of go missing in books. Its use in American books started later than in British ones, and the number of instances is lower, but they seem to be catching up a bit.

British books

American books

My parrot has gone missing and other stories

Among the go missing stories in the media is one where the BBC quote the Leicestershire police as listing 'My parrot has gone missing' as one example of "inappropriate" phone calls made to the 999 emergency number. Meanwhile the Sun has a headline 'Winona Ryder's borrowed £82k gems go missing'.
Unfortunately most instances of go missing in the British media are of rather a sadder nature. Here are some site searches for go missing stories:
The BBCgone missingwent missinggo missing
The Guardiangone missingwent missinggo missing
The Daily Mailgone missingwent missinggo missing
The Sungone missingwent missinggo missing

Why the dislike?

There are a range of expressions to do with sport and physical activities where we use go plus a gerund (-ing form) - go cycling, go fishing, go shopping etc., and I wonder if some of the opprobrium comes from the way go missing looks similar to these, but obviously doesn't express any deliberate action on the part of the subject, whereas these others do.
But with all these expressions we could insert 'to do some' - go to do some cycling, go to do some fishing, go to do some shopping, where the noun quality of the gerund becomes clear. But we can't do that with go missing - 'go to do some missing' simply doesn't work. This tells us that missing isn't functioning as a gerund here, but rather as a participle, and so we have to look for some other grammatical explanation.
Grammarphobia quotes the OED as classing this with expressions like go native, go public and go ape, where go means 'to pass into a certain condition'. And although go native and go public still suggest a deliberate action, these expressions give us a clue - for here native, public and ape are nouns being used as adjectives.

One justification - it's useful and it's an idiom

In his New York Times article, Safire asks the question of why go missing has lasted so long and has, in his words, 'now blossomed'. His answer:
It does a semantic job that needs doing, that's why. No other term quite encapsulates 'to become lost inexplicably and unexpectedly,' which connotes suspicion of trouble. From the most serious loss (a person kidnapped, or a soldier unaccounted for or absent without leave) to an irritating minor loss (an object is mislaid), to go missing -- always in its past tense, went , or past participle, gone -- conveys a worried, nonspecific meaning that no other word or phrase quite does.
He should really have written usually in the past tense or past participle; examples with base form go can be found. At the British National Corpus there are 120 instances of went missing, 85 of gone missing and 20 of go missing.
Safire puts it down to being an idiom, and says that as such 'it is incorrect to correct it ... "idioms is idioms". Relax and enjoy them.'
But do we need to leave it at that? Can we try and explain the grammar behind this expression? I think we can.

A grammatical explanation, Part 1 - missing as an adjective

The present participle missing can be used as an adjective, both attributively (before a noun) and predicatively (after a linking verb, typically be):
  • Did you ever find that missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle?
  • The missing child was found safe and sound.
  • My gloves have been missing for ages.
  • He was reported (to be) missing last year.
And of course, the media and the authorities often talk of 'missing persons'. In fact, dictionaries generally list go missing in their entries for missing as an adjective, so we can confirm that missing is being used as an adjective here. Those people who dislike go missing seem to have no problem with missing as an adjective in missing persons or is missing, but presumably question how can somebody or something go missing.

A grammatical explanation, Part 2 - go as a linking (copular) verb

As has already been hinted at, the verb go is sometimes used as a linking or copular verb, functioning grammatically like be, and followed by a predicative adjective. Here go has more of the meaning of become, another linking verb, where it describes a change of state or condition. This change is often outside the control of the grammatical subject. Notice how it compares with be:
  • She is crazy about him.
    The dog seems to have gone crazy.
  • It's very dark in here.
    It suddenly went very dark.
  • He is bald/blind/mad/bankrupt etc
    He has gone bald/blind/mad/bankrupt etc
  • His hair is grey.
    His hair has gone grey.
  • This milk is sour.
    This milk has gone sour.
  • The children are really excited.
    The children went wild with excitement.
  • This is all wrong.
    Everything went wrong.
  • She was silent for a minute or so.
    Suddenly the room went silent.
Exactly the same thing is happening with go missing. Again notice how the use of go compares with that of be.
  • A part is missing / There's a part missing.
    A part has gone missing.
  • It's been missing for two weeks or so.
    It went missing two weeks ago or so.
But admittedly, missing appears to be the only adjective ending in -ing that is used with go in this way. There's a more detailed and technical grammatical explanation at Language Log link below).

How old is it?

According to the OED (via Grammarphobia) it was originally used for lost aircraft, and was first recorded in a book published in Australia in 1944. On the other hand, Safire quotes an example from The Times (London) from 1877. But with the help of Google Books (GB), we can take it back even further than that. This, for example, is from a poem published in 1873:
Puss has got the thimble,
Kitten has the reel.
Needles, pins, go missing —
No one heeds them now —
Mammy's busy kissing
Trotty's heated brow;

Trotty, Harriet E Hunter, from Living Voices, compiled by E. Spooner, London 1873 GB

The oldest example I've been able to find is from a letter written in 1834, verified in several places:
Asks Laing if he can transcribe a Ballantyne Club miscellany for him and mentions that a copy of the Trial of Clerk and Macdonald has gone missing

Letter, Edinburgh 1834 Google

Here are some more early examples:
  • That was the letter that went missing ?
    - Victoria Parliamentary Papers (Australia) 1859
  • separate blocks, and are very apt to go amissing or get destroyed
    Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1875
  • after some conversation, the marshal requested the stranger to tell the true reason for his refusing to be searched when the snuff-box went missing
    - Short stories for School and Home Reading 1876 GB
  • When may a man's friends naturally suppose that he has gone missing? When he has gone a-courting
    Harper's Weekly, 1878 Google
  • Not an accident occurred under his care, not a piece of baggage went missing
    - Crusading with Knights Templar, Pennsylvania 1878 GB
  • But I know that if they went missing I should feel pretty happy still
    - The Granta (and elsewhere) 1890
  • That's an awful bit of country. More than one man has gone missing there and never been heard of again
    In the whirl of the rising - Bertrand Mitford, London 1904 GB
There are a few from the time of the First World War and also from the Second World War


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