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 grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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.

11 responses to “The Media Made Me Do It”

  1. Carole in Midland NC says:

    I’m not a big fan of “gone missing” either. What’s wrong with using the KISS rule(Keep it Simple, Sweetheart) and just saying someone is missing?

  2. Janet H says:

    Instead of saying “gone missing” why not simply say “is missing”?

  3. Mike W. says:

    I think the most grating phrase is from clerks at store registers who ask, “Can I help who’s next?” I would love to hear, “May I help the next person?”

  4. Phylis says:

    ‘Mary has gone missing’ gives us no more real information than ‘Mary is missing’. If we need the time element, ‘Mary has been missing since Wednesday’ works just fine.

  5. Ken K says:

    Thanks, Tom. This article (and hopefully more like this) is and will be appreciated by a teacher like me in an international setting, inundated with English(es). My only recourse is letting those learners who refuse to adhere to my standard of American English fail their SAT, and then they will come back to class with humility. Fortunately, formal education is still valued for employment abroad.

  6. Gina Mitchell says:

    In response to the gone/went missing discussion, perhaps “The man was discovered to be missing two days ago”. Although to use discovered (or found) and missing in the same sentence for someone not here might produce another whole world of angst.

  7. Pegi B. says:

    Great newsletter, but I can’t believe you missed “oftentimes”! Since “often” means “many times,” speakers are actually saying “many times times”! I always learned that “often” is an adverb, not an adjective. Just another case of “snooty-speak.” It’s like the longer the word, the more superior they think they sound. Why don’t they just say “often”???

    • There is some logic to what you’re saying, however, Merriam-Webster says oftentimes has been around since the 14th century.

    • Rosezetta Frazier says:

      Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I cringe every time I hear someone say “oftentimes!” It may have been around since the 14th century, but I’ve only been aware of its usage, in the last 10 – 20, or so, years. I’m with YOU, Pegi B.!

  8. Jaimi Sorrell says:

    Just a little clarification on the subject of making a crossbar on the downstroke of the numeral 7. I’m English originally (have lived in the US for many years) and I can tell you that it’s actually not an affectation, it’s something they used to teach (don’t know if they still do) in accounting and other jobs that required a lot of number use, back when there was a lot of handwriting involved. It’s simply a way of avoiding a handwritten 7 being confused with a 1.

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