Monday, February 28, 2005


Two writers at Language Log note the shift in usage of "troops."

First, Geoffrey Pullum writes about hearing "two troops" on NPR.
To me, troops is a grammatically plural way of referring to soldiers en masse (Support our troops), it's not a semantically plural version of a singular noun. For me (and NPR increasingly seems to differ), you can no more have *37 troops or *two troops than you can have *one troop — except, of course, when you're using the different lexeme troop, which means a whole group of soldiers or Boy Scouts or whatever.
Arnold Zwicky chimes in that he agrees but that the distinction is being lost:
Some months ago, I complained on the American Dialect Society mailing list about this usage (which I too had first noticed on NPR) and was quickly informed that the count plural troops for individuals was indeed widespread. And in fact the 1993 additions to the OED have "A member of a troop of soldiers (or other servicemen)", with singular examples from 1832, 1947, and 1973.

It's actually very useful, as you'll see from the way people in the Navy, Marines, and Air Force (probably also Reservists, though I haven't actually seen this) object to soldiers as a cover term for members of the U.S. Armed Services, since they see the word as referring only to the Army. Note "or other servicemen" in the OED definition. Servicepeople, anyone?
I read a William Safire column once saying that, in most instances, this is a fight no longer worth fighting: "Troop" can mean a collection of soldiers or it can mean individual soldiers. He did caution, however, that it's best to use "troops" as a countable noun only when that count is high. It's easy to confuse "two troops" -- is that two service members or two units of service members?

I've come around on this. Using "troops" as a countable noun still makes my right eye twitch, but I let it go in copy I'm editing, as long as the meaning is clear. And it usually is.

UPDATE: In the comments section, Vince Tuss made a good point: AP has an entry advising how to deal with this.
troop, troops, troupe A troop, in its singular form, is a group of people, often military, or animals. Troops, in the plural, means several such groups. But when the plural appears with a large number, it is understood to mean individuals: There were an estimated 150,000 troops in Iraq. (But not: Three troops were injured.)
Use troupe only for ensembles of actors, dancers, singers, etc.


At 12:22 PM, February 28, 2005, Blogger Etaoin Shrdlu said...

I thought AP might have clarified its style to allow three troops in the past couple of years, but I'm not finding anything. Does the online AP stylebook have anything to say on the subject, Nicole?

And what annoys me more is changing use of the verb deploy, from intransitive to transitive. Such as: He deployed to Iraq along with the rest of his Guard unit. The Pentagon and commanders deploy a unit. If a unit was doing the deploying, I bet they wouldn't be going where they ended up!

At 12:54 PM, February 28, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Good points, Vince. I added the AP style rule to the original post.

At 4:35 AM, December 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first heard 'troops' used in the singular, I believe it was during Dessert Storm and the newscaster was reporting deaths of soldiers, my first exclamation was "OMG, how many soldiers in each troop!?" I quickly realized the term was being used in the singular, each soldier being a troop. I cringe each and every time I hear the word used thusly, not only because it sounds ridiculous, but as is the case when I first heard it used confusing; and yes, the term is now in daily usage by newscasters when reporting only a handful of casualties. I think our servicemen and women would be better honored by identifying them based on their branch of service. Lazy copy writing is not a good reason to confuse and mask the issue of death regarding our son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, husband or wife.

At 2:14 PM, July 20, 2007, Blogger Alan Oak said...

I'm glad to see a new copy editor talking about this subject. It's bugged me since the beginning of the war.

At 5:02 AM, July 22, 2007, Blogger Alan Oak said...

It turns out that using "troop" for one soldier may be a usage that's more than 170 years old, according to the OED.


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