Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Language Peeves - "Went Missing"

A reader recently commented that it really bothers him when news headlines report a missing person by using the phrase "went missing" instead of "is missing."

In regards to this language peeve, the difference between "went missing" and "is missing" is a bit more involved than one might initially think...not only are the verbs in the phrases different, the verb type and tense are different as well. These verbal differences result in semantic differences, and the choice of using one phrase rather than the other may or may not be intentional.

Went is the past tense form of the verb to go. To go is an action verb.
Is is a present tense form of the verb to be. To be is a verb of being that is considered a linking verb.

Semantically, action verbs imply that choice is involved because people choose their actions, whereas linking verbs simply form an association between a subject and its complement. So, saying that a person "went missing" implies that that person chose to go missing and saying a person "is missing" implies that there was not a choice and that whatever happened was against that person's will. Additionally, because went is past tense, "went missing" leaves open the possibility that the person is no longer missing.

The choice of using one phrase rather than the other may be intentional if the possibility exists that the missing person is on the lam or it could just be that a copywriter was lazy and didn't give much thought to the semantics of the chosen verb.


Nancy JJ said...

While I agree with your post about "went missing," I find it ironic that you've used "in regards" in a post about language peeves. "As regards" or "with regard to" would work, but "in regards" is a peeve of mine. :)

Laura Payne said...

Nancy JJ - I admit that "in regards to" is nonstandard. Unfortunately, it was part of the local dialect of my youth and it is a hard habit to break.

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