Forms and meanings of "come and go"

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"NBC created ‘boomerang effect’ by refusing to run ad calling out China, Olympics: Concha", Fox News 2/6/2022:

You just played
a- a clip from that ad, right?
And all over social media,
people are now watching this ad when maybe,
if it aired on NBC,
it would have came
and gone

The end of this clip is obviously a substitution for "it would have come and gone" — and Mr. Concha apparently noticed the problem as he spoke, resulting in the 330 msec. silence after "came":

But this is Language Log, not Minor Talking Head Speech Errors Log. So what's the point?

Since this is also not Social Communication Log, I'm not writing about the Boomerang Effect, the Streisand Effect, or (we can now add) the Maus Effect.

Instead, this example led me to think about the meanings and forms of the idiomatic phrase come and go.

The OED offers two (non-obsolete) senses, with citations back to the 14th century for both:

(a) To arrive and depart again (either once or repeatedly); (hence also) to go here and there, to move around freely
(b) To occur, exist, or be present or prevalent only transiently or for a limited time. Also of time or a period of time: to pass swiftly

Sense (a) reminds me of these famous lines from The Love Song of J, Alfred Prufrock:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

No similarly famous example of sense (b) comes to mind — perhaps a commenter will suggest one — but here's an example from The Old Curiosity Shop:

Hark! A footstep on the stairs, and now the door was slowly opening. It was but imagination, yet imagination had all the terrors of reality; nay, it was worse, for the reality would have come and gone, and there an end, but in imagination it was always coming, and never went away.

It's interesting that semantic evolution of this phrase has led to these two (clusters of) meanings that are (in some sense) opposite. One denotes (connotes?) a repeated, continuous state or activity, and emphasizes its repetitive nature; the other refers to an isolated, transient state or activity, emphasizing its transience. Both meanings are consistent with the literal interpretation of the phrase, but each one adds a layer of interpretation that ends up putting them in opposition.

Morphological mistake aside, Mr. Concha obviously intended sense (b).

Interestingly, other dictionaries see the senses somewhat differently.

Wiktionary gives

third-person singular simple present comes and goes, present participle coming and going, simple past came and went, past participle come and gone

    1. To alternately enter and exit, arrive and depart (either physically or figuratively)
      He comes and goes as he pleases.
    2. To repeatedly appear and disappear; to be transient
      My headaches come and go, but the pain in my neck is constant.

where the second sense combines transience with repetition.

The Cambridge Dictionary has just one sense, where the gloss emphasizes transience, but the example sentence implies repetition:

to exist or happen somewhere for a short time and then go away:
 The feeling of nausea comes and goes.

Merriam-Webster offers a different take:

1 — used to talk about time that has passed
// More than a hundred years have come and gone since the day of that famous battle.

2 — used to talk about people who appear and then leave as time passes
// She's seen a lot of employees come and go during her time in the company.
// Politicians come and go. They all seem pretty much the same to me.

So the literal meaning of the phrase come and go has evolved along various different dimensions. There are clusters of common uses, as in MW's (incomplete) list, but not a crisp separation from the starting point, nor a clear division among the end points.

This pattern is the normal case for semantic change in progress, I think, and is the main reason that sense disambiguation is hard.

Update — JPL's comment lays the semantic background out very nicely.


  1. Chips said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 7:09 am

    There's also, perhaps, a sense of continuous finality (if there is such a term) in the phrase "come and go" … the closest of which is the M-W description of politicians.

    It's a common phrase from Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory of Australia in describing non-Aboriginal people's relationships and/or presence with Aboriginal communities: "Whitefellas come and go".

  2. Roscoe said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 8:42 am

    "Come and Go" is also a short play by Samuel Beckett.

  3. Andrew Gelman said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 9:18 am

    Regarding expressions that can take on a particular meaning or its opposite, my favorite is the word "sanction," which can mean "to authorize" or "to punish." And this really does lead to confusion!

    Here's an example ( the statistician Steve Stigler quoted as saying, “I don’t think in science we generally sanction the unequivocal acceptance of significance tests.” Unfortunately, I have no idea what he means here, given the two completely opposite meanings of the word “sanction.”

    [(myl) For more on aut(o)antonyms, see "Homographic homophonic autantonyms" (11/3/2007), "Homographic homophonic autantonymic chants and signs" (11/7/2007), "More autantonymic slogans" (11/9/2007), "X-inator" (11/11/2010).]

  4. Thaomas said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 9:25 am

    There can be the idea of repeated transience.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 9:33 am

    Maybe I'm missing something, but doesn't the past tense in this suggest meaning (b)?

  6. outeast said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 9:39 am

    “So,” said Granny, “how goes the life?” The other witch shrugged, causing the drummers to lose their grip again, just when they had nearly climbed back up. “Like the hurried lover, it comes and goe—” she began, and stopped at Granny’s meaningful glance at Esk.

    Terry Pratchett's up there with Eliot, right…? Anyway, two uses at once, there.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    The google books corpus contains multiple 21st-century books containing the seemingly mismatched string "came and gone." But it may be significant that the more recent tranches of that corpus include plenty of books that look to be self-published and/or otherwise innocent of any pre-publication contact with a professional copy editor. So I don't think these instances are sufficient evidence to establish genuine dialect/register variation on the grammaticality of "came and gone."

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 12:06 pm

    I confess that I cannot create, in my mind, any sentence containing the phrase "came and gone" other than as a quoted string. Apart from the example in the introductory prose (which seems to me to be no more than an error), can anyone provide an example where, at least at first sight, it would appear to be gramatically correct ?

  9. Bob Ladd said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 12:32 pm

    @J W Brewer, @Philip Taylor: It depends on what you mean by "dialect/register variation", but there are certainly plenty of speakers of English whose most natural past participle form for come would be came and who might therefore produce, in speech or non-copy-edited writing, things like "would have came", "should have came", etc. Doesn't standard vs. non-standard count as a "dialect/register" difference?

    Of course, many of the same people also often have went as the past participle of go, so they might be likely to say "would have came and went". But I could certainly imagine somebody who is not an effortless user of the standard forms come and gone producing something like the phrase in the OP – getting halfway through and then realising that they should be saying gone instead of went and correcting only the second half.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 12:52 pm

    Fair enough, Bob — if it would help to clarify my own question, may I re-cast it as "can anyone provide an example where, at least at first sight, it would appear not to warrant a warning asterisk were it cited as an example in (e.g.,) Quirk's Comprehensive grammar of the English language" ?

  11. Cervantes said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 3:10 pm

    Karma karma karma chameleon, you come and go, you come and go.

    Like the morning sun you come, like the wind you go.

    [(myl) Genius lyrics here, official music video here.]

  12. Patrick said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 3:17 pm

    (b) "They're always coming and going, and going and coming, and always too soon." – Lili von Schtupp

  13. Patrick said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 3:19 pm

    Or rather, (2).

  14. Philip Anderson said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 3:53 pm

    @Andrew Gelman
    In British English at least, it’s possible to sanction people, or organisations/states, with the sense of imposing sanctions on them (although it sounds strained to me), but if behaviour, or an idea, is sanctioned, it can only mean permitted. So I see no ambiguity in your example.

  15. JPL said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 4:46 pm

    I haven't time right now to give a well-thought-out answer, but the following suggestion comes to mind (and will probably require adjustment).

    The two senses belonging to the phrase 'come and go' are 1) describing movement displaying reversibility (source-goal, goal-source, or at least involving directionality); and 2) describing appearance and disappearance of an experienceable phenomenon (think, e.g., of an event having the form of a flashing light). Both of these senses may involve single events, repeated events, or a situation referred to as generic (non-individual, open-ended, etc.). The latter distinctions are contributed by the aspectual modification (perfective, imperfective, generic, all of which may be expressed by the English "simple" verb forms, perfective being the "default" of the Simple Past, imperfective, incl. generic, being the default of the Simple Present. Likewise, the perfect forms will typically be descriptive of single events, but the Dickens quote seems to show that they can refer to repeated or even generic events, open-ended "up to this point". Similarly, the adverbial 'always' can indicate the repeated or generic incidence of an event with some internal observation point ("They're always coming and going".) If the "on-off" form (2) is regarded as a case of reversibility of a change, the the two senses can be unified.

  16. John Swindle said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 6:31 pm

    "Loud are the bells of Norwich and the people come and go…
    Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go…."
    (Sydney Carter channeling Julian of Norwich)

    Are these contrasting uses of "come and go"? The people are always (continuously) coming and going. The winter comes but then it goes; it's impermanent. And yet I see no real contradiction between the two senses. As JPL said, if I understood correctly.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 7:33 pm

    I too see no contradiction — winter comes and goes on an a year's time is not the same winter as came the year before, just as the people who go are not necessarily the same people who will come in the future (tho' they are always the same people that came in the past, modulo any who were born there).

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 7:35 pm

    I accept Bob Ladd's point that there are some varieties of English (non-standard varieties, if we're using that descriptively rather than pejoratively) where the simple-past and past-participle of strong verbs end up fusing. I can't recall having noticed that with "come" in particular, but it seems plausible that that would have happened for some speakers somewhere. I'm not sure whether the instances I googled up were accurate reflections of that sort of non-standard dialect or random production errors (or even typos?) or some third thing. It may very from example to example.

    One such example is a poem by Albert M. Schlaht (in a collection copyrighted 2011) titled "To all whom came and gone," and I'm guessing from the "whom" that this is not Mr. Schlaht's default native idiolect, but rather his good-faith attempt at a more exalted poetic register.

    On the other hand the use in running prose in How Cat Man Came to Be, by Ronnie Edwards (copyright 2021), is consistent with other hints from context that Mr. Edwards' native idiolect is probably some variety of AAVE and that his consistently non-standard prose style* has not been much influenced by the sort of standard English schoolteachers might have recommended to him.

    *The book's prefatory NOTE TO THE READER begins "I wrote this book base on me and my Aunt was talking about the LORD JESUS CHRIST. How we should use what gift he give you." Those who for whatever reasons have never mastered standard schoolteacher English prose style may indeed have other gifts which we should be open to learning from.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    February 10, 2022 @ 6:12 pm

    I have noticed that modern speakers frequently say "have went" and not "have gone", and "have came" seems unsurprising from that perspective.

    My thoughts on this are basically identical to Bob Ladd's.

  20. Philip Anderson said,

    February 11, 2022 @ 11:42 am

    @Philip Taylor
    People who are born and die are also coming and going (like Bede’s swallow perhaps).

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    February 12, 2022 @ 4:35 am

    I agree with your analysis, Philip A., but feel that in the context of Norwich it was a physical coming and going to which Sydney Carter / Julian of Norwich were referring rather than to a metaphysical one.

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