Have you seen my grammar?

Jun 14, 2015

“Found missing.” “Gone missing.” “Went missing.” If you have ever seen the side of a milk carton you are familiar with these phrases. But these curious expressions just sound wrong … and British.

“This is a Briticism, and I think why Americans are noticing it is that it is absolutely on the increase in American English,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

“Over the last 15 years, the phrase 'go missing', 'went missing' has increased tenfold.”

Why? One can always blame the Internet, but there is also speculation that media attention to high profile disappearances, including British cases that use the phrases “go missing” and “gone missing,” are really responsible.

It’s become so popular that Grammar Girl stepped in and listed it as her grammar peeve of the year in 2007.

And many say you can’t use “go” plus an adjective, but those people haven’t been paying attention.

“I have to say in English we actually use go plus an adjective a lot," says Curzan. "If you think about phrases like ‘go public’ ‘go rogue’ ‘go crazy,’ in all of these 'go' means to become or to move into a condition, hence, ‘go missing’ fits a pattern.”

Anne decided to “go looking” for the year this all started in British English. The Oxford English Dictionary said 1940s, but it was easily bested by Google Books, which said at least 1920s.

Back in the olden days, a lot of the usage was about ships that had “gone missing” instead of people.

But even by 1921, you can start to hear it refereed to about people, like a husband who had “gone missing” during the war.  

But what about found missing?  Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it?

“Again, the verb 'find' can occur with an adjective right after it," explains Curzan. "So for example, it was found true, it was found false, it was found well-constructed. So when you think about that pattern, why not be able to find it missing?”