In the phrase missing person, is the whole phrase a compound noun or would missing be considered an adjective that modifies person? It seems like in many situations when it is used with other adjectives, missing is not treated as an adjective. In addition, I have seen the phrase pluralized as missing persons rather than missing people, which makes it seem like the phrase is viewed as one whole word.

  • 3
    Also "Missing person reports..." suggests it's phrasal. – Dan Bron Dec 8 '14 at 23:02
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    Defined “compound noun” first. Do you mean a multiword phrase each word of which is itself a noun? Or do you mean something else? – tchrist Dec 28 '14 at 14:41
  • I mean is "missing person" a noun in and of itself, or is it just a regular noun modified by an adjective? – Nicole Dec 28 '14 at 21:04

Since one can be on an official list of "missing persons", and it means something slightly different than a list of "missing people" or a list of "people missing", (either of which would probably mean that they were not in an expected place) I'd have to say that "missing person" is a compound noun - as it has a distinct meaning when phrased that way.


The difference between missing persons and missing people would be that missing persons means that the individuals that are considered here as persons are missing. Where it shows individuality. But missing people is more like a group of people missing.

Hence I would say that "Missing person" would not be considered as a phrase and "Missing" here would be considered as an adjective.


Some dictionaries (OALD, Cambridge, Collins) have entries for missing person as a noun. Consequently, missing is not considered an adjective here.

According to these dictionaries, the correct plural form is missing persons.


The fact that 'misper' is an acknowledged (if slang) shortened form of 'missing person', as shown in Wiktionary

misper English Noun (plural mispers)

(police slang, term of art in private investigations) a missing person

shows that compounding is accepted for this concept. Though the 'rules' can be rather arbitrary;

(5) I want a baked cheesecake not an over baked one.

All the items are baked.

shows that some structures seem intermediate between '[true]adjective + noun: collocate' and 'adjective + noun: open compound'.

This example, and further discussion of the debate, is given in the paper HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE ADJECTIVE PLUS NOUN COMPOUND AND ITS ADJECTIVAL COMPONENT?.

  • There are lots of slang abbreviations for longer phrases. This does not automatically turn the longer phrase into a "compound", however. – Hot Licks Dec 28 '14 at 14:57
  • I was not claiming it did ("the 'rules' [for allowable compound nouns etc] can be rather arbitrary"). 'Compounding' is a term not at all restricted to linguistics (' ... compounding is accepted for this concept'); I'm just saying that a 'misper' shows that there is certainly an accepted single term used to compound the notions 'person' and 'missing'. The size of the paper I link to shows that the psycholinguistics / morphology (compound notion / compound structure) considerations involved are very complex. When should a collocation be considered a compound? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 28 '14 at 20:20

I'm not the best with stress, but it seems like there is only one stress on the phrase "missing person" which means that it is a compound noun. Regardless, it is a frequent phraseology.

Interestingly, "missing person" and "missing persons" are quite frequently used as adjectives. Missing people, however, always seems to be a noun.

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