“Went missing” is the Grammar Girl 2007 Peeve of the Year.
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And now, on to the Grammar Girl Pet Peeve of 2007: went missing.
[For an updated analysis of went missing, see the 2012 article "Dilemma and Gone Missing."]
Here's an example of one of the many messages I received last year:
I want to complain about the use of poor grammar in our news media, particularly the news people's use of the term went missing for disappeared. Where in the world went missing came from, who knows, but they use it all the time, and it just grates on my nerves. So if you have any pull with these people, Mignon, please do something. Thank you!
Well, I don't know if I have much pull with the news media, but if any reporters are listening, here's the deal: Went missing actually isn't wrong, but it annoys a lot of Americans, so you might want to say missing or disappeared every once in a while.
The reason went missing sounds strange to Americans is that it's a British idiom (1, 2). I've seen sources placing the first use of went missing as far back as 1944 (3), but my version of the Oxford English Dictionary places the first use in a 1958 book by British writer Norman Franks (4). The OED places gone missing in the same category as the phrase go native, which is used to describe a turn to or relapse into savagery or heathenism. I've also heard the term go native used to describe the transition a newcomer to Washington D.C. undergoes as he or she accepts the government bureaucracy, which I suppose could be considered turning to savagery or heathenism.
One thing I realized while researching went missing and its partner go missing, is that go is quite a versatile verb. The OED includes nearly 100 definitions, most of which have multiple sub-definitions. A couple of other idioms that use the word go include go begging to mean “unfilled” or “available,” as in Jobs went begging; and go over to mean “to gain acceptance,” as in They hope the play goes over well.
It's possible that this British term has gained footing in the American media because of the high-profile disappearance of British girl Madeline McCann in May 2007. The McCann story received wall-to-wall news coverage for weeks, and this is just speculation, but it may be that the constant reporting by British journalists about how the girl “went missing” subtly influenced American reporters to adopt the term.
So, I hope you enjoyed the first Grammar Girl pet peeve of the year. Next time I'll run a poll before selecting the Pet Peeves of 2008. Maybe we'll caucus. Just kidding.
* The use of fun as an adjective, as I have used it, is controversial.
1. missing. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/missing (accessed: January 03, 2008).
2. go. Merriam-Webster Online. http://www.m-w.com/dictionary (accessed: January 03, 2008).
3. O'Connor, P.T. “'Gone missing' or 'went missing.'”The Grammarphobia Blog. August 14, 2006, http://tinyurl.com/36nulg. (accessed January 3, 2008).
4. go. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition. Oxford University Press, http://tinyurl.com/37usvq (accessed January 3, 2007).
Web Bonus: More Words of the Year