Grammar The Media Made Me Do It |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

The Media Made Me Do It

I heard from a correspondent who hates the phrase gone missing. His e-mail called it an “ear-abrading” and “vulgar” usage. “Sends me right round the bend, mate!” he said.

I did a little digging and found that he’s far from alone. “Gone missing,” according to a word nerd at the Boston Globe, is “the least loved locution of the decade.”

According to the Globe piece, this “chiefly British” phrase has been around since the 19th century, so it’s not some trendy new grotesquerie. It’s also not ungrammatical—if you can go insane, you can surely go missing. So what makes people hate it so much?

Especially considering the lack of a good alternative: I’ve always felt that “vanished” and “disappeared” sound as if the missing person was the victim of a magic trick. And “turned up missing”? Please spare me. Anybody with something better than gone missing, please write.

Maybe it’s that we have a complicated relationship with European savoir-faire in general…and the Brits in particular. Young American males, for instance, deal with a perceived sophistication gap, believing with some justification that English accents and guys named Colin get all the babes.

Ever since that little 18th century uprising of ours, many Americans traditionally have viewed Mother England with an uneasy mix of nostalgia and rebellion, so Brit-isms such as “gone missing” can be irksome. Don’t you get irrationally annoyed when your artsy friend says, “Let’s wander about” instead of “around”? Or how about those people who write their phone numbers with periods instead of hyphens: 555.2940 instead of 555-2940…why do I hate that? Even someone putting that heinous horizontal bar through a 7 makes me crazy: “Look at me; I’ve been overseas, and now even my 7’s are refined.”

How many otherwise sensible Americans are mesmerized by Britain’s royal family? And from Cary Grant to Hugh Grant, there’s never been a shortage of British actors in Hollywood. In the early days of talkies, except for gangsters, cowboys, and blue-collar parts, leading men and women had distinct English accents, even though some of them came from Hell’s Kitchen.

Now that my correspondent has exposed my unthinking use of “gone missing,” it’s made me a kinder, gentler word nerd. Remember how the old, intolerant word nerd always blamed pretentiousness when people said “more importantly,” “close proximity,” or “comprised of”? I was being too hard. In fact, we are bombarded with these expressions daily by high-profile media hotshots till our resistance breaks down. With repetition by smug authority figures (who couldn’t pass English 101), some of the worst barbarities gain respectability.

Since we’re on this subject, let’s look at some words that broadcasters mangle.

Envelope, envoy, enclave  Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of these words’ first syllable is “enn” rather than the faux-French “ahn.”

Alleged  It must come as a shock to many announcers, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It’s pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Camaraderie  is a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four in the media. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Bestiality  Everyone’s wrong about this one, because it’s not BEAST-iality. Look at the spelling and then tell me: how do you pronounce b-e-s-t?

Homage  This word has spun out of control in the last several years, but for most of my adult life it was correctly pronounced HOMM-ij. Then came AHM-ij, and it went downhill from there. Now we have everyone sounding oh-so-elegant with the pseudo-sophisticated oh-MAHZH, for which there’s really no excuse.

This classic grammar tip by our late copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern was first published on July 4, 2013.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

17 responses to “The Media Made Me Do It”

  1. Marie Hoover says:

    Good article.
    What is wrong with just saying: Someone is missing instead of Someone has gone missing–is it because of the movie Gone Girl?

  2. Larry Verburg says:

    I understand your lack of tolerance with people who use the phrase “close proximity,” and I have no magic synonym to replace “gone missing.” However, I disagree (mildly, of course) with your castigation of people who put the horizontal bar through the number 7. I spent most of my high school years in Canada, where I was taught to write “centre” and pronounce “about” like “aboot” and “again” like “uhgain.” I was also taught to mark my sevens with a horizontal bar. While I try to catch myself on “aboot” and “uhgain,” I’m not always successful, and I’m sure some have thought my lapses in speech somewhat affected. However, I have always considered using the horizontal bar with the number seven to be an excellent idea. Today, children are not taught penmanship in school, and I have seen many a 1 and a 7 that looked identical. Hence, I still perform that subtle maneuver and think it quite helpful. Indeed.

    • Slashing one’s sevens was certainly an irritant for Tom Stern, and he had fun writing about it. However, it’s really a matter of personal style, and you can slash them if you like.

  3. Ted Tompkins says:

    As a retired newspaper copy editor, gone missing drives me crazy. You go to the supermarket, you go to the movies, but NOBODY goes missing. I get maybe not wanting to use vanished, because that’s what magicians do with their assistants they’ve put in escape-proof boxes. I’d opt instead to say someone has been missing or hasn’t been seen since a certain time and/or place.

  4. T.J. Neal says:

    Is missing should suffice, shouldn’t it? If the time when the person was discovered to be missing is needed, one could say that s/he is missing as of a specific date, time, etc. In my explanation I accidentally offer another wording: discovered to be missing.

  5. Judith Lavezzi says:

    I think I do each of those-I’m pretentious and didn’t even know it! lol

  6. Lita says:

    So funny.

    I’m a Brit who ‘hates and loathes’ (English expression – in my neck of the woods – not up for criticism) the word Brit.

    The English accent doesn’t exist. The distinctive, strangulated vowels that define the accent of the upper classes, are like the myriad other accents that exist on our daft raft of an island – it’s a tribal thing.

    As a youngster, a gazillion years ago, I was obliged to attend elocution classes – to refine my natural Sussex accent. At the age of thirteen I sounded like an uncomfortable mixture of Eton schoolboy and BBC newsreader. When the family moved to another town, and I was enrolled into a local school, I was bullied until I spoke like them. One week of bullying and my Sussex accent was back. Children adapt to the local tribe’s way of speaking; being a mimic helps. Depending on where I am, I adapt my accent accordingly, so I fit in. Many people used to do that. Not so much nowadays; we’re allowed to be proud of our regional accents.

    I’m happy those strangulated vowels I was made to acquire have…well…gone missing.

  7. Jodi Coburn says:

    Please correct the word “till.” You mean “until.” A till is the part where the money is stored in a cash register, and to till means to turn over soil.

    • The author, Mr. Stern, meant till. In our Confusing Words and Homonyms section, you will find that “till predates until by several centuries.” Merriam-Webster elaborates as follows:
      “Many assume that till is an abbreviated form of until. Actually, it is a distinctive word that existed in English at least a century before until, both as a preposition meaning ‘to’ and a conjunction meaning ‘until.’ It has seen continuous use in English since the 12th century and is a perfectly legitimate synonym of until.”

  8. Rebecca Henry Lowndes says:

    “Gone missing” makes perfect sense to me. “BEASTiality” is, however, a recurring irritant.

    FWIW, the unthinking phrase that infuriates me above all others is “one of the only”. I hear it all the time coming from the lips of professional broadcasters and intelligent folk. Just consider what you’re saying, please; that phrase is complete nonsense.

    (Also, regarding punctuation, I generally follow the rules, but I refuse to adhere to the one that requires the closing of quotation marks *outside* other punctuation marks such as commas, periods, and colons, always, even when the quotation is not a sentence. I notice The New Yorker obeys this rule, but I will not. If the quote is a phrase, an incomplete thought, it gets closure of its quotation marks *before* whatever comes next.)

    • Another reader objected to one of the only a couple of years ago. That phrase does annoy some people, but it is an established idiom used to indicate “one of very few.”

  9. G. Springer says:

    Regarding your comments on “gone missing” … I’ve also heard, “showed up missing” … (grrr) What is wrong with IS MISSING ?

  10. Brenda R says:

    I beg to differ (perhaps only in vehemence) with your comments regarding the slashes on numerals. For some people, that slash is the difference between chaos and being understood, at least in writing. I learned in high school German class (taught by, of all people, a Czech) that because Germans learn to add that little “hook” at the top of the numeral 1, the slashed 7 differentiates nicely. And while I’m on the subject, slashing one’s zeroes came from the computer classes I took in the 80s, to differentiate between a 0 and the letter O. In my opinion, clarity will always trump what someone views as pretentiousness. As always, of course, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

  11. Paisley says:

    I love GrammarBook! This is a great article. It is very interesting to see how words are commonly mispronounced. Thank you for the fabulous newsletters!

  12. Bryon Satterfield says:

    I prefer “became missing.”

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