In the following two paragraphs the phrase went missing was originally supposed to be was missing. Can I still use it as is?

We went to the cinema yesterday. When we were about to leave, I saw this scarf hanging down from the handrail just at the exit doors. Everyone was just walking by; no one seemed to notice it.

For some reason, I couldn't just walk by. It looked like it belonged to me. Then I realized that my scarf went missing. It's strange, because I couldn't quite remember when I lost it or why.

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    Technically, maybe you should use the past perfect, because your scarf had gone missing before you realized it. For informal writing (which I assume this is), I think it's fine as is. – Peter Shor Dec 8 '13 at 21:24
  • Thanks for your comment Peter. I was thinking the same thing; the scarf had been missing before I realized it. Good to know though that for informal writing I don't have to worry about it as much. – user1288263 Dec 8 '13 at 21:34

There is a subtle distinction between the two uses and it has to do with the specific time being emphasized.

Then I realized that my scarf was missing.

This is a past tense equivalent to:

I just realized that my scarf is missing.

The meaning is that the character is expecting the scarf to be there but it isn't; it is missing.

Then I realized that my scarf went missing.

I just realized that my scarf went missing.

Here, the scarf "went" missing at some point previous to the realization. The connotation is that the scarf left and it did so at some point in the past. It doesn't really matter whether the realization is happening in the present or the past since the scarf will always have gone missing before the realization itself.

This distinction is most noticeable when you move into the future:

In one hour he will realize that his scarf went missing.

In one hour he will realize that his scarf is missing.

In the first sentence, the scarf could have gone missing at any point before the realization; in the second sentence the scarf most likely went missing before the sentence itself was spoken.

Another easy way to spot the difference is to use both in the same paragraph:

Then I realized my scarf went missing but I've since found it. It is no longer missing.

Then I realized my scarf went missing. It is still missing. Have you seen it?

Then I realized my scarf was missing. It is not missing anymore. But it still went missing.

In the final example it would sound somewhat strange to say, "But it still was missing."

As a concrete answer to your specific question, you can certainly use both variants in this particular context and they will mean roughly the same thing. The only reason to chose one over the other is stylistic emphasis.

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  • I believe “But it still went missing” is strange, too. How can you use “still” to modify an action that occurred at an instant in time? “My son still went to college this fall” is (clearly?) wrong. – Scott Dec 19 '13 at 1:14
  • "Still" in this sense simply means "it is still the case"; so "it still went missing" means "it is still the case that the scarf went missing." – MrHen Dec 19 '13 at 3:07
  • Sounds like “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” – a trivial reference to the immutability of the past. – Scott Dec 19 '13 at 3:10
  • "Jesus died; and then he rose from the dead so he is no longer dead. But he still died." Saying something "still went missing" is just saying it "went missing". The word "still" doesn't change the meaning of the sentence. – MrHen Dec 19 '13 at 4:42

In everyday English, several adjectives can be used as the complement of the verb go:

go mad/crazy/missing/bad/berserk/quiet

(in the past went mad etc)

This always refers to changing to a state, not to being in that state.

This construction is limited to certain adjectives only, with no obvious logic: you can't say *go lost, *go broken, or *go ill.

So went missing is fine in everyday spoken English (apparently not in American English, according to some other answers, though again that is about the choice of word: I believe went mad is OK in American and British English). But it refers to the when you lost your scarf, not to the state of the scarf having been lost, so this would have been at an earlier time, so my scarf had gone missing would be normal.

[I notice that most of the words that take this construction are more or less undesirable. Even with quiet: being quiet may be good or bad, but going quiet has an implication of having met a setback of some kind.]

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It's a BrE cliche, and is okay, but try not to use it in AmE.

The reason went missing sounds strange to Americans is that it's a British idiom. … If "gone missing" bothers you, use a word such as "disappeared" in your own writing. You can criticize "gone missing" as annoying if you like, but not as incorrect. (GrammarGirl, 1,2)

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  • Thanks for your answer Chris. You might be right, because I studied in London and might have picked it up while I was there. The message was intended for an Australian. – user1288263 Dec 9 '13 at 14:34
  • It is said to be found in many Commonwealth nations, including Australia. – Kris Dec 10 '13 at 5:33
  • It’s used in AmE, too. – Scott Dec 19 '13 at 1:11
  • @Scott Did I say it isn't? You could save a comment :) and avoid causing misunderstanding. – Kris Dec 19 '13 at 6:00

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