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