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August 9th, 2006

Recap: went missing / there is or there are a number of / sank and shrank

by Barbara Wallraff



Here is a second installment of questions I published some time ago but that readers continue to ask me.




Sylvia Smith, of Seal Harbor, Maine, writes: “What do you think of the current phrase ‘went missing’? Whatever happened to ‘is missing’?”


Dear Sylvia: “Went missing” or “go missing” is a British import. Judging from the number of letters I get about it, it grates on a lot of people on our side of the Atlantic. But I find it a useful addition to our language. It means something more active than “is missing” -- something more like “vanished.” The idea of going missing is less dramatic than that, though, and generally leaves open the possibility that who or what is missing will be found. “Went missing” has been appearing in respectable U.S. sources since about 1980. It seems to be here to stay.




Fil Panlilio, of Atlanta, writes: “Which is correct: ‘There is a number of ...’ or ‘There are a number of ...’? My feeling is that since ‘number’ is singular, it needs a singular verb.”


Dear Fil: Not necessarily. “Number” -- like, say, “audience” -- is a collective noun. And it’s true that in American English, collective nouns that look singular (as these do: the word is “number,” not “numbers”; “audience,” not “audiences”) are usually treated as singular. “The audience is getting restless,” for instance. But whenever a plural verb better suits the logic of the idea being expressed, a plural verb is better English. For instance, “The audience are putting on their coats” -- not “The audience is putting on its coats,” and please not a mixture of singular and plural like “The audience is putting on their coats.”

“Number,” though, is a slightly peculiar collective noun, but the rules for how to use it are straightforward. When you write or say “the number,” use a singular verb: “The number of people in the room is large” -- not “The number of people are large.” But when you write or say “a number,” use a plural verb: “A number of people are coming” -- not “A number of people is coming.” Similarly, “There are a number of people coming” -- not “There is a number of ...”




Susan Kott, of Caro, Mich., writes: “I’m stumped as to why the word ‘sank’ has all but vanished from contemporary use. The word ‘shrank’ also has shrunk from current usage. I’d love to read your opinion of this.”


Dear Susan: In my gloomier moments, you can find me holding my head in my hands and muttering: “There are fewer than 200 irregular verbs in English. Why the heck can’t people get them right?” But I once made a chart of all the irregular verbs, and then I began to see why they give people trouble.

Irregular verbs can be irregular in all kinds of ways. You’re right that “sink” correctly follows the same pattern as “shrink.” It’s “sink,” “sank,” “sunk” and “shrink,” “shrank,” “shrunk.” And yet it’s “think,” “thought,” “thought.” Similarly, “bring,” “brought,” “brought.” But there’s also “fling,” “flung,” “flung” and “sing,” “sang,” “sung.” And “ring,” “rang,” “rung” -- except when you’re talking about making a physical ring around something; then the correct pattern is the regular “ring,” “ringed,” “ringed.”

See the problem? You and I should be proud of ourselves for knowing that in 1912 the Titanic sank -- not “sunk” -- and that in 1989 Wayne Szalinski, played by Rick Moranis, shrank -- not “shrunk” -- the kids. All the same, I take pity on people -- apart from those of us who earn their living by writing or speaking -- who garble their past tenses and past participles.




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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