Ask The Old Editor: three things

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Old Editor will attempt to address your entreaties for information and advice on grammar and usage, writing, writer-editor etiquette, and related subjects.

The Old Editor does not address marital and relationship matters, dietary questions, or automobile mechanics.

 

The question: Tom Shettle of Timonium posed three questions for The Old Editor in a comment on a recent post: “Please pray tell, why do people write and say these things; Joe ‘Went missing’. Where is ‘Missing’? --- Joe ‘Graduated High School’. One does not graduate the school. ---Joe ‘Taught Jefferson on the violin’. Was he sitting or standing on the violin? I will appreciate your thoughts and comments.” 

The Old Editor answers: Three questions, three answers.

The first: There is a problem with the way the question is posed. Go is not a transitive verb and cannot have an object; missing is an adjective, not a noun, and thus isn’t a place. Go missing is a phrasal verb, and English has thousands of them. Presumably you wouldn’t object to go after, go ahead, go far, go over, or go wrong, for example.

I’ve written about people’s irritation with go missing twice, in 2007 and 2011. The objection seems to be that the expression was originally British, presumably having penetrated our insecure borders through British crime dramas on PBS such as Colin Dexter’s Morse series.

It has displayed staying power because it is usefully neutral. We say that a woman has gone missing when she is not where she is expected to be; she may have left without a word to perform some errand, wandered off, or been abducted. We don’t know which, and we don’t want to commit to abduction when she may just have gone to buy cigarettes.

The second: Graduated has been undergoing a shift for more than a century. In 1900, graduation was something that the school performed on the student by granting a degree. One was graduated from a university. By the middle of the twentieth century, Americans being a proud people who raise themselves by their own bootstraps and get irked when Barack Obama tells them they didn’t build that, the student performed the action. One graduated from a university. Today, colloquial English goes transitive: one graduated college. If you dislike the usage, you have plenty of company, but it is widespread and might ultimately make a place for itself in formal English.

The third: When English pretty much abandoned inflection, word order took on crucial importance, and the placement of prepositional phrases got a little dicey. Put a prepositional phrase in the wrong place in a sentence and you will create ambiguity and perhaps appear a fool. One of the published examples in my archive refers to someone who arrived at a university “and was given a book by Thomas Jefferson. (I thought he was dead.)

If I were editing the sentence you supply, I would make it taught Jefferson the violin.

 

Got a question for The Old Editor? Write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com. Your name will not be used unless you specifically authorize it.

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