Laura Moyer is a compulsive copy editor who reads the AP Stylebook for fun.
RSS feed of this blog

“Went missing” is here to stay

A view from the top of Ampersand Mountain.

A view from the top of Ampersand Mountain in the Adirondacks. Photo from Adirondack Mountain Club,

The phrase “went missing” is an abomination, some say. It’s slangy. It’s sloppy. It’s just not right.

“Couldn’t you phrase it differently?” one caller pleaded earlier this year, after our paper published the phrase in stories about a boy lost in the woods. “You could say ‘was discovered to be missing.’ ”

I listened. I sympathized.

But no way.

“Went missing.” Two words. Unambiguous. Describes what happened.

“Was discovered to be missing.” Five words. Stilted. And impossible: The boy could be missing, or the boy could be discovered. He couldn’t be both. (He was, happily, discovered and returned to his parents.)

The prejudice against “went missing” isn’t new.

As a college student in a previous millennium, I was told the phrase was journalistic jargon. Over the next few decades as a reporter and editor, I tried to avoid it.

When a hunter didn’t come home, when a toddler wandered outside and fell asleep under a bush, when a Boy Scout got lost and spent a shivery night on a mountain, I used “vanished,” “disappeared” and “reported missing.”

But those alternatives never seemed quite right. “Vanished” or “disappeared”? Not really. The missing people didn’t dissolve into vapor, or slip into a parallel world. They weren’t props in a magic trick.

“Reported missing” wasn’t right, either. The moment someone is reported missing is not the moment that person went missing.

Eventually, I concluded that “went missing” fills a need, and I let go of my anxiety about it.

I was reminded of this over the weekend, when an extended noodling-on-the-Internet session led me to this recent article in Slate.

The author traces “to go missing” to the British, and he says its current popularity in American English spiked when congressional intern Chandra Levy went missing in 1996.


Regular readers may have noticed that the Red Pen went missing for a few weeks in August and September, and a few of you have written or called to ask me about it. For the record, I did not wander outside and fall asleep under a bush.

I ran into a scheduling problem, now resolved. Then I took a very nice vacation in the Adirondacks.

Even there, punctuation played a role. We hiked the steep and lovely Ampersand Mountain, named for the twisty creeks in the surrounding valley.

During the near-vertical boulder scramble to the summit, we might or might not have urged God to damn Ampersand and a few other punctuation marks for good measure.

God did not. And the view from the top was terrific.