A note on "miss"

February 18, 2013

A question posted on /r/vim, the subreddit devoted to the vim text editor, has made me think twice about the meaning of the verb “miss” and its various forms:

What feature do you miss from vim?


Before we discuss the meaning of “miss” here, take a second and decide what you think the above question is asking, and (if anything) is implying.

Got it? OK, let’s go.

When I first read the question, I thought the original poster (OP) meant: What feature that used to be in vim, but is no longer in vim, do you miss? I probably came to this interpretation by analogy with

I miss feature F in (from) vim.

which to me implies that vim once supported F but now no longer does. More generally, to me “I miss X” implies that X used to exist (in some context–dependent sense) but no longer does. For example:

I miss my dog, Rosco.

I miss Italy.

When I'm in Montreal, I miss eating boiled crawfish.

The first sentence implies that Rosco is no longer with the speaker: maybe Rosco died, or ran away, or maybe the speaker is away on vacation. The second sentence implies that the speaker was once in Italy but no longer is. The third sentence implies that the speaker used to eat (and enjoy eating) crawfish, e.g., while he lived in Louisiana, but when in Montreal no longer eats them. And so forth. (Clearly, the notion of “(no longer) exists” is pretty loose here, as it can be instantiated, e.g., as separation between a person and his dog, etc.)

These implications are probably presuppositions associated with “miss”. That’s why if you negate any of the above sentences, the implications persist, and that’s why the OP’s original question has, to me, such an implication. (Presuppositions persist under negation, questioning, etc.)

It turns out, however, that what the OP meant was: What feature that does not exist (and has, in fact, never existed) in vim do you wish existed? Huh! Well, luckily for me, I was not the only one who was confused. Another user, TankorSmash, wrote:

I don't understand, you're implying we don't have vim anymore.

to which yet another user, onwardAgain, replied:

I think he means "what functionality would you like that is missing".

A couple things to note here. First, whereas I thought the OP was asking about features that no longer exist, TankorSmash thought the OP was implying that vim no longer exists. On either interpretation, I think the point still stands that use of the verb “miss” implies that some contextually dependent thing no longer exists, in some contextually dependent sense.

Second, it’s interesting that onwardAgain paraphrased the OP’s question in a totally comprehensible, non–confusing way by recycling the word “miss”, but now in the form “missing”. Let me explain.

Whereas the sentence “I miss feature F (in vim)” to me implies that F once existed (in vim) but no longer does, the sentence “Feature F is missing (in/from vim)” does not imply any such thing. More precisely, the latter asserts that F currently does not exist in vim, but does not imply that F once did exist in vim. (It does, however, probably imply that F should exist in vim.)

Returning now to the Rosco, Italy, and crawfish examples, note that transforming them from “miss” sentences to “is missing” sentences produces weird results.

My dog, Rosco, is missing.

Italy is missing.

When I'm in Montreal, eating boiled crawfish is missing.

Only the first one makes any real sense, but even that one means something quite different from what “I miss my dog, Rosco” means. Both sentences imply that the speaker and Rosco are no longer together, but they differ pretty drastically in what they imply about the separation of the speaker from Rosco: the “miss” version implies very little about the reason for their separation (maybe Rosco died or ran away, maybe the speaker sold him or is on vacation), whereas the “is missing” version is more narrow. If Rosco died, or if I sold him, or if I were on vacation, I could not say, “Rosco is missing”.

So it’s interesting that transitive “miss” and adjectival “missing” both have to do with some loose notion of nonexistence, or separation, yet differ pretty wildly in what they imply about that nonexistence. (Or to put it differently, they differ in which contexts are appropriate for their use.)

Moreover, I think the intuition is clear that neither “X misses Y” entails “Y is missing”, nor does “Y is missing” entail “Y is missed (by someone)”.

And there are many other uses of transitive “miss” based on a similar loose notion of nonexistence, or separation, like “to miss the train”, “to miss the point”, “to miss the target”, “to miss an entry (in a list)”, etc. (see here).

It’s unclear to me how one could assign a uniform semantics to “miss” that gets all these usages straight, or even whether one would want to. Clearly, “miss” and “missing” must have different semantics, but must all the different versions, so to speak, of transitive “miss” also have their own semantics? That is, transitive “miss” is ambiguous between miss1, the relation describing people who miss people/things in the emotional sense; miss2, the relation describing people who fail to be on time for things; etc. Maybe that’s on the right track, but it misses (ha) the intuitive semantic connection between all the miss’s.

Then again, maybe that’s not the job of semantics. After all, there are historical semantic connections between all sorts of words, but a semantic theory certainly shouldn’t describe all of them.