missing it

Yesterday’s Mother Goose and Grimm:


Ok, a simple ambiguity. The relevant subsenses of the transitive verb miss, from NOAD2, with my sense id codes:

— in the set of 12 failure-miss senses:
[1f] fail to attend, participate in, or watch (something one is expected to do or habitually does): teachers were supposed to report those students who missed class that day. [Mother Goose’s sense]

— in the set of 3 absence-miss senses:
[2c] feel regret or sadness at no longer being able to go to, do, or have: I still miss France and I wish I could go back. [Grimm’s sense, a willful misunderstanding of Mother Goose]

The verb miss has been around in English forever (that is, since OE), and it has accumulated an enormous number of senses (some of which should be treated as separate lexical items). The OED3 (June 2002) entry is huge and complex; the NOAD2 entry is a distillation of this material into 15 subentries — which misses (sorry about that) at least one important sense from the failure set, which I’ll code as [1m] ‘fail to have; lack’. The OED3 entry:

18. trans. a. To be without, not to have, lack; to cease to have, lose. Now usually in progressive tenses. [with cites back to ME; a representative recent cite:]
1988 G. Naylor Mama Day 46   Dr. Buzzard’s pickup truck is missing both fenders.

From NOAD2’s entry, with the MGG senses asterisked (the a senses are assumed, by the lexicographers,  to be the basic or most general ones in a set):

[1a] fail to hit, reach, or come into contact with (something aimed at): a laser-guided bomb had missed its target | [no object]:  he was given two free throws, but missed both times.

*[1f] fail to attend, participate in, or watch (something one is expected to do or habitually does):teachers were supposed to report those students who missed class that day.

[1j] fail to include (someone or something); omit: if we miss a few things in the first draft, we can add them later.

[not in NOAD2: [1m] fail to have; lack]

[2a] notice the loss or absence of: he’s rich — he won’t miss the money | she slipped away when she thought she wouldn’t be missed.

[2b] feel regret or sadness at no longer being able to enjoy the presence of: she misses all her old friends.

*[2c] feel regret or sadness at no longer being able to go to, do, or have: I still miss France and I wish I could go back.

Senses [1j] and [1m] are the path to the senses in (2), with ‘fail to have’ (in [1j] and [1m]) leading to absence senses: noticing absence, feeling regret about an absence or inability. The details of this progression deserve a careful exploration of texts in their sociocultural contexts.

Here I’ll focus on [1j] ‘omit’ and [1m] ‘lack’.

Yearning. But first a note on [2b], which is (I think) a high-frequency item, and is certainly quite visible in popular culture, in “I miss you” or “I am missing you” between friends or lovers. As in a number oif songs about yearning for an absent person — or not, as the case may be. Two examples:

From 1974:


“I Am Missing You” is a song by Indian musician Ravi Shankar, sung by his sister-in-law Lakshmi Shankar and released as the lead single from his 1974 album Shankar Family & Friends. The song is a rare Shankar composition in the Western pop genre, with English lyrics, and was written as a love song to the Hindu god Krishna. The recording was produced and arranged by George Harrison, in a style similar to Phil Spector’s signature sound, and it was the first single issued on Harrison’s Dark Horse record label. Other contributing musicians include Tom Scott, Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner. (Wikipedia link)

The chorus:

I am missing you, Oh Krishna,
Where are you? [x2]

Though I can’t see you
I hear your flute all the while. [x2]

Please come wipe my tears
And make me smile. [x2]

You can listen to the song here.

And from 1984:


“Missing You [I ain’t missing you at all]” is a song co-written and recorded by English musician John Waite. It was released in June 1984 as the lead single from his second album No Brakes.

John Waite re-recorded the song with country/bluegrass artist Alison Krauss which appeared on her album A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, and released it to country music radio in 2007. (Wikipedia link)

The relevant lyrics:

I ain’t missing you at all
Since you’ve been gone, away
I ain’t missing you
No matter, what I might say

You can listen to the 1984 version here.

Omitting / lacking. Omitting is an act, lacking a state — a difference in what’s sometimes called the lexical aspect (or Aksionsart) of the verbs omit and lack, having to do with the internal structure of the situation a verb refers to (very crudely, omitting unfolds in time and has an end-point, lacking is homogeneous through time). (There’s also morphosyntactic aspect, expressed in morphology or in syntactic constructions.)

From a 7/22/11 posting “Saul Steinberg on activity and stativity”:

about activity and stativity in verbs — semantic distinctions with reflexes in syntactic behavior. There’s a huge literature on these topics just in English alone. As a first approximation, it’s usually said … that some lexical items are activity verbs and some are stative verbs: imitate is [a transitive] activity verb, denoting an activity, resemble a [transitive] stative verb, denoting a state, and their different semantics is reflected in a number of syntactic differences

— among them:

[progressive] Kim is imitating/*resembling Sandy.

[do-cleft] What Kim did was imitate/*resemble Sandy.

[passive] Sandy was imitated/*resembled by Kim.

These matters are almost ridiculously complex: each of the diagnostic constructions has its own conditions on occurrence, and at least one of them, the progressive, is in fact a family of constructions, with a variety of meanings and uses. To start with, we need to distinguish the inflectional form PRP (the “-ing form”) from the progressive construction, which uses that form.

Now turn to verbs (and verbal idioms) of not having. The list from the NOAD2 thesaurus, which lacks (again, apologies) be missing, though it has both lack and be lacking:

lack, be without, be in need of, need, be lacking, require, want, be short of, be deficient in, be bereft of, be low on, be pressed for, have insufficient; informal be strapped for

These items are all stative in their semantics (not having is a state, not an activity); all occur with either direct or oblique objects; unsurprisingly, none are passivizable (be is never passivizable, and neither is have ‘possess’, and then there’s *One leg is lacked by the statue alongside ✓The statue lacks one leg), and none occur in the do-cleft construction; but the progressive facts are something of a surprise.

Compare lack and miss. The stative verb lack, surprisingly, occurs freely in the progressive:

(1) ✓The statue lacked one leg / ✓The statue was lacking one leg ‘The statue didn’t have one leg’

In addition, the plain and progressive constructions are near-paraphrases; compare The statue toppled over / The statue was toppling over, where there is a clear semantic distinction. It would seem that these are just brute facts: English has both a stative verb lack and a stative verbal idiom be lacking (using the PRP form of lack), both with the semantics roughly ‘not have’.

Even more surprisingly, the stative verb miss ‘not have, fail to have, lack’ (sense [1m] of miss above) appears to occur only in the progressive, as the OED3 entry notes:

(2) *The statue missed one leg / ✓The statue was missing one leg ‘The statue lacked one leg’

Apparently, these are more brute facts: English has in fact no stative verb miss ‘lack’, but it does have a verbal idiom be missing (using the PRP form of failure-miss) with this meaning.

Compare the ‘lack’ sense of miss to the ‘omit’ sense, [1j], which is an activity verb. Context: we thought we’d catalogued all the parts of the statue, but…

(3) ✓We missed one leg ‘We omitted one leg’/ ✓We were missing one leg ‘We were omitting one leg’

This is just what we expect of an activity verb: it occurs in both the plain and the progressive constructions, with a semantic distinction (of aspect) between them.

(There is, of course, a lot more to be said here. In particular, I haven’t explored the role of agency (as well as aspect) in (at least) the do-cleft and passive facts: there is a close relationship between activity verbs and agentive subjects.)

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