The Grammarphobia Blog

Is this species of English extinct?

Q: I’m wondering if the phrase “go extinct” is correct, as in “That mammal has gone extinct.” Until recently, I’d always heard “become extinct.”

A: Just like other species of living things, words and phrases battle it out in a kind of linguistic version of natural selection. It appears that the verb phrase “go extinct” has made a place for itself.

In its earliest sense, the word “extinct” meant “extinguished,” and was a past participle of the verb “extinguish.”

It was first recorded in writing in the mid-15th century. Here’s the earliest citation (dated 1432-50) from the Oxford English Dictionary: “That fyre was extincte.” 

Soon the word was being used in an adjectival sense, as in this citation: “The lampe of grace in thy soule wyll soone be extinct” (1526).

“Extinct” can be used as a simple adjective to modify a noun, as in “an extinct volcano.” But when used with a verb, it has historically been accompanied by some form of “be” or “become.”

So the most common verbal usages for many centuries were “be/is/are/was/were extinct,” or “become/became extinct.”

The OED has no citations for the new verb phrase “go extinct,” which along with its variants gets hundreds of thousands of hits on Google.

But Oxford has many citations for the verb “go,” when accompanied by an adjective, to mean “to become, get to be (in some condition).”

The OED’s citations for this use of “go,” dating from the late 1500s to the present day, include the phrases “went low,” “went less,” “gone thick,” “go cold,” “went dead,” “go gray,” “gone mad,” and “goes sour.”

Also, “went scarlet,” “goes lame,” “gone vacant,” “go native,” “gone Hollywood,” “gone missing,” “go public,” “go ‘arty,’ ” “gone serious,” “going establishment,” “going nuclear,” and “go postal.”

(We wrote a blog entry a few years ago about the now popular “gone missing.”)

As you can see, “go extinct” has caught on for a reason: it has a long history of analogous usage behind it.

But the phrase “become extinct” is not about to go the way of the dodo. It still vastly outnumbers “go extinct” in Google hits.

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