Nothing Wrong with “went missing”

By Maeve Maddox

Marilyn asks

Why does one say “went missing” instead of “is missing”?

I’d never given the expression “to go missing” any thought. It sounds fine to me, perhaps because I lived in England for seven years.

Judging by the comments on some language sites, it drives some Americans crazy.

I . . . have been puzzled (and annoyed) by the term “went missing.” I teach English (vocabulary, grammar and literature) to sixth and eighth grade students, and would mark this “incorrect usage” if I saw it in their writing. It seems to have become totally acceptable in newspapers and on television. I know we are a nation of “borrowed” words, but this one offends the ears.

Went missing has been bothering me ever since I first heard it on TV. UK or Canadians can have it. In our country it’s incorrect and it will never sound proper.

The OED includes the expression under the entry for the verb go, along with the expression to go native. The sense of go here is “to pass into a certain condition.”

The American dictionary Merriam-Webster also includes the expression in the go entry:

go missing: to become lost

To say that someone “has gone missing” is not the same as saying someone “is missing.” “To go missing” means “to disappear.” “To be missing” is to be gone or absent.

I’ve heard American speakers say that someone “has gone AWOL.” I don’t see much difference between that and saying someone “has gone missing.”

The expression “went missing” for “disappeared” may be informal rather than formal, but it is neither ungrammatical nor unidiomatic.

Nevertheless, since many Americans object so strongly to the expression. writers and newscasters may want to think twice about using it.

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19 Responses to “Nothing Wrong with “went missing””

  • Brad K.

    I suspect went missing shares a history with other awkward phrases. Come daylight comes to mind. Twice.

    Some phrases seem to imply a different expression of actor and time than is common in plain English.

  • Michael Batey

    Here in the UK this usage has enjoyed a resurgence as a sporting cliche – Beckham or whoever will be said to have ‘a tendency to go missing in the big games’.

    Having said that, it had never struck me as odd till I read this entry. Now I fear it will jar with me forever…

  • scriveyn

    The phrase sounds perfectly normal to me – no need to go postal about it.

  • Tony Hearn

    I’d never have given ‘went missing’ a second thought. To this Englishman’s ears the usage is entirely natural. Interesting to see it in the context of ‘to go AWOL’, though. That is, I believe, World War II military argot (= Absent WithOut Leave) and here in England is perhaps becoming confined to the older generation. Is it possible that ‘to go missing’ also has military origins, i.e. ‘to go missing in action’? Discuss.

  • Sally

    I agree with Marilyn – I don’t like to hear the phrase ‘went missing’ as used by tv/radio broadcasters. I’ve tried to come up with a different phrase that expresses the same thing to no avail.

    My best shot for ‘He went missing on June 4th’ ended with the terribly awkward ‘He started to be gone on June 4th’. I don’t think ‘disappeared’ works because we don’t really know if he disappeared.

    What a dilemma ;-))

    Sally

  • LadyShe

    It struck me as incorrect and not sounding good to the ears in the slightest when I first heard it, and I don’t look for little things like that to criticize. Why would someone ask if someone is postal? I haven’t seen any violence on this post. This is simply a discussion. It sounds odd, because, if you have a memory like mine, it IS odd. It wasn’t used for many years, so we all detect the change, some of us more than others. Being from England has nothing to do with it. You just may be one of those people who don’t notice others haircuts, new decor, etc. Not everyone is so keen on things. WARNING, SARCASM: Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, it’s on television. It’s fine, then. I am so pleased an ENGLISH teacher spoke my very same sentiments, however. I am not an expert, just an average person, so I can only imagine the cringing that goes on with the literati. Normal to me, to this average person, would be to say “he disappeared”, or, he was reported missing. Why the change? May I give my boring opinion? Possibly for the same reason the faucet design changed in my apt. (not for the better, it’s not logical, aggravating) and stewardess became flight attendant, waitress and waiter became server, beautician became hair stylist and so on. The really intelligent remain humble, accepting the best of the past while embracing the improvements (if they really are) of the future, making things so much more efficient. Changing something just because you can shows your lack of real education, which is that of remaining open-minded. Hey, thanks for letting me vent. Love your site. Just found it and if I hadn’t checked my spam box, you all wouldn’t have had the delight to be graced with my lovely presence. Seriously, you all speak your mind, and I love it!!!

  • David

    It also seems to have become totally acceptable to use the word totally as an adjective in front of totally everything.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    I agree with newcomer, LadyShe, and others on this one.

    Hearing “went missing” or “has gone missing” grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. (Am I showing my age using the word “chalkboard”? :-))

    I noticed this usage when it slipped into broadcast news five or ten years ago. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now. I researched “gone missing” when I realized it had become part of everyday lingo here in the USA, and I discovered that it is common and widely accepted in the UK.

    That doesn’t make it right for me. I wish it would just disappear (or just “go missing”). And I long for the day when I can say, “That annoying verbal phrase, ‘gone missing,’ is finally missing and has disappeared from American usage.” Not that I think that will happen.

    After all, language evolves ….

  • Jon

    Is it an expression that appeared in British English after American and British usage went their separate ways?

    Or is it an expression that predates the concept of “American English” and was dropped from common usage in American English?

    Which is the evolutionary step? Starting to use the phrase, or dropping the phrase altogether?

    I couldn’t help but laugh at the original quote – the concept of an (American) English teacher being offended by the ‘borrowing’ of an expression from British English… If we’re talking about borrowing expressions… or an entire language for that matter… where to begin…

    What is the suggested alternative to “went missing” that still captures the same sense? Let’s not even start on how awkward the phrase “go Absent” [WithOut Leave] is.

    (Oh, and LadyShe – I don’t think scriveyn was suggesting anyone actually *was* going postal, just using the phrase to highlight a similarly constructed expression… I believe it’s an American expression, isn’t it? 😉

  • scriveyn

    Thanks Jon – yes, I meant to point out the similar construction. And then of course, I never was one to resist a pun. 😉
    Incidentally, I found out that the going postal phrase has a real and quite recent (1986) background in a series of workplace violence that started in post offices in the US.

  • Dee

    Tony- I think “going AWOL” sounds more modern in the US. I associate it more with Vietnam than WWII, myself.

  • Jon

    I’d forgotten it was that long ago, scriveyn. Then again, I’ve always had one large ocean or another between me and the US.

    Maybe we could all collectively start an urban legend about the phrase “going postal” dating back to stagecoach robberies in the Wild West…

  • D Nelson

    I’m an American and the phrase “gone missing” has always sounded normal to me. After reading this article, however, I think it’s going to end up seeming like a Buffyism to my ears.

  • Ian

    What’s wrong with “went missing”? Do those who find it grating also find fault with the following:

    To go crazy
    To go bad [as in, “The milk went bad”; “Put the milk away–it’s going to go bad!”]
    To go haywire [as in, “My computer went haywire!”]
    To go broke [as in, “If I stay with her, I’m going to go broke”]
    To go dead [as in, “I don’t know what happened–we were talking and then the signal just went dead”]

    ?

    All are extremely common in colloquial American English (and “to go bad” even makes appearances in formal settings). In that sense, they’re perfectly “correct” even if one doesn’t like them.

  • John

    What is the part of speech of “crazy” or “postal” following “to go”? Are they predicate adjectives or adverbs?

  • jim

    One additional thought; if went missing is proper grammer, what tense is the expression? Evidently, since went is the past tense of go, he is no longer missing since the phrase, as used by most news broadcasters, is in the present tense and seems to imply the same to be true in the future tense.
    A better usage, gramatically, might be that the individual is simply, “missing”
    for example: John was thrown into the river and is currently missing: The boat overturned and 2 passengers and the owner of the boat are missing: Foul play was suspected when the owner of the house was unable to be located.

  • Moha

    Although English is not my first language and I am not even fairly good at it, let me interject two points:

    1. To jim: He “went” missing means he had not been missing before and was missing thereafter (and not necessarily is missing now). The change of state from not missing to missing in the past is stated by “went missing” and it does not imply he is no longer missing or to the contrary.

    2. When I was in England It was taught that “go/went/gone” also serve as forms of “to be” verbs when we are stating a transition from a state to another, i.e. not missing/missing, not crazy/crazy, not red/red, and etc. For instance: His face went red.

    3. To John: “go crazy/postal” are predicates and since “crazy/postal” are not describing how “to go” occurs therefore they are not adverbs. It seems, crazy/postal/missing are to be considered adjectives whose part of speech are “predicative expressions” that are linked to the subject by a linking verb (copula). In “It smells bad”, can any body see the analogy?

  • Peg

    What does the expression mean–” to go haywire ” mean?

  • Bill Hopkins

    “Went missing ” is another attempt by media scribes to sound more erudite, and they end up sounding silly. Missing is a state of being ; you disappear or vanish, nothing more. If you assume “went missing ” is acceptable, why not “went found “, when the person reappears ? When a person is in a drunken stupor, do you say they went drunk ? I thought not ! I rest my case !

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