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The Baltimore Sun

You hate "went missing"? I could care less

The objections to went missing this week followed the same pattern as the objections in 2009: “Ugh.” “Too British.” “Doesn’t make sense—missing isn’t a place you go to.”

No one is going to stop you from objecting to this or any other expression on aesthetic grounds. If you find went missing a disagreeably jargony piece of cop-talk, or if you dislike British expressions as much as some Brits dislike Americanisms, matters of taste are not subject to legislation, and no one is going to compel you to use expressions you dislike.

But what you can’t get away with is to claim that an expression widely understood and widely used is illogical or doesn’t make sense.

While languages have rules and patterns, they are not necessarily logical. Languages have idioms, and idioms, by definition, have meanings that do not coincide with the literal meanings of the constituent words. One commenter objected to turn up dead as not logical. But no one who hears it imagines that a corpse has suddenly acquired volition and motion.

Once idioms are established, speakers and writers understand them. I’m a little reluctant to open up a second front on could care less, but the people who object to that idiom always say, “No, you mean you couldn’t care less.” They dislike the expression, but they are never confused about the meaning.

Language being the most democratic thing we have, your objection to a word or a phrase or a grammatical or syntactical construction is one vote, as is mine. Those of us who edit enforce the standards and preferences of our publications. We should take care, however, to keep in mind that neither our house stylebook nor our individual preferences have statutory force. We should, of course, discuss what language is most effective and weigh our judgments—without preening ourselves over our peeves.

 

 

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