Today, Neal Whitman will help us understand why the word “troops” can refer to the number of individuals or groups.
What Does “Troops” Mean?
Memorial Day is next week, when we in the U.S. honor members of the military who have died in the line of duty. So in today’s article I’ll answer a question some readers have had about the word “troops.” Alicia writes
I have a question about the use of the word “troops” to mean individual soldiers. For the longest time, when I heard a phrase like, “The president is asking Congress to send 10,000 more troops,” I thought the speaker meant that 10,000 troops of soldiers were being sent. Then, in my mind, I would try to calculate how many individual soldiers that would actually mean. Eventually, I realized that the word “troop” is being used to mean individual soldiers. I wonder why we don’t just say “soldier”?
Unfortunately, the plural noun “troops” is ambiguous.
Does “Troop” Mean a Group of Soldiers?
One of its meanings is indeed a group of soldiers. The Random House Dictionary defines “troop” as “an armored cavalry or cavalry unit consisting of two or more platoons and a headquarters group.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “a unit of cavalry, armored vehicles, or artillery in a European army, corresponding to a platoon in the U.S. Army.”
Under those definitions, “two troops” could be upwards of several dozen people. The grammatical term for this kind of word, by the way, is collective noun. Other collective nouns include “family” and “group.”
Can “Troop” Also Mean an Individual Soldier?
However, when a news report mentions some number of troops, it’s almost certainly talking about that many service members. In other words, “troops”is being used as a noncollective noun. How did the word “troops” come to have this ambiguity, and is it OK to use it this way?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “troop”entered the language in the mid-1500s, and you can find many early examples of it referring to units of cavalry, in phrases like “ten troops of horses and dragoons,” meaning ten groups of heavily armed, mounted soldiers.
But in the 1700s, examples begin to appear in which “troop” is no longer a collective noun, in which “1,000 troops” means 1,000 men. For example, in volume 4 of “Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland,” published in 1787, the historian Sir John Dalrymple estimates the yearly expenses for “1,000 English troops,” and also refers to this group as “1,000 men (1).” There’s also a source from 1744 that refers to 16,000 troops and clearly means 16,000 individuals (2). The usage probably goes back even earlier, but without a lot of historical knowledge, it’s hard to say.
Troops and Big, Round Numbers
Although writers have been using “troops” in a noncollective way to refer to individuals for close to 300 years, until recently it usually happened with large, round numbers in the hundreds or thousands. That may have caused some confusion, but complaints about it seem to have surfaced relatively recently. The earliest I’ve found is in Barbara Wallraff’s book “Word Court,” published in 2000, in a letter from one of her readers.
Troops and Small Numbers
Complaints have increased as news reports coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan tell about small numbers of military personnel being injured or killed by roadside bombs or guerrilla attacks—sentences such as “Five troops were killed today,” really draw attention to the ambiguity.
Troops of Mixed Forces
So why do people use noncollective “troops” to refer to small numbers? At least in the modern era, it’s useful for talking about members of more than one branch of the armed forces. You can’t always replace the word “troops” with “soldiers,” because under some definitions, “soldiers” refers only to members of the Army, with “Marines” used for the Marine Corps; “sailors” for the Navy; and “airmen” for the Air Force.
In fact, “airmen” brings up another benefit of the noun “troops”: nonsexist language. Even a cover term like “servicemen” excludes women who serve in the armed forces. “Troops” avoids this problem, and is shorter than “service members” or “members of the armed forces.”
What’s the Right Way to Use “Troops”?
Our advice is to go with the AP’s position, and use “troops” by itself or with large, round numbers to refer to service members.
Currently, you’ll find a continuum of opinions about noncollective “troops.” The most restrictive position is that you shouldn’t use it at all, whether you’re mentioning numbers or not. In an essay for NPR in 2007 (3), linguist John McWhorter argued that noncollective “troops” trivializes individual soldiers, a feeling we’ve also heard from listeners and readers. In 2008, author Susan Jacoby made the same point in her book “The Age of American Unreason.”
A slightly less restrictive position is that noncollective “troops” is OK as long as you don’t mention any numbers.
The Associated Press takes an even less restrictive position (4). In AP style, noncollective “troops” is OK by itself to indicate a vague number of military personnel, or with large, round numbers—but using “troops” with small, specific numbers is out.
Laxer still is Bryan Garner’s position in the fourth edition of Modern English Usage: Noncollective “troops” can refer to any number of individuals greater than one. “Two troops”? Yes. “One troop”? No.
The laxest position of all is that “troops” or “troop” can refer to any number of individuals, including one. Though “one troop”may seem to be a recent development, you can find examples of the singular noun “troop” referring to one service member from throughout the past couple of decades. In 1990, President George Bush used it in a speech during the Persian Gulf crisis (5). Some veterans who served in the 20th century recall being addressed as “troop (6).” The Oxford English Dictionary even has an example from 1853 of the singular noun “troop” referring to one soldier.
Our advice is to go with the AP’s position, and use “troops” by itself or with large, round numbers to refer to servicemembers. Quick and Dirty Tip: The OO in “troops” looks like the two zeroes you’ll find at the end of big, round numbers such as one hundred or one thousand.
For smaller numbers, “troops” or “troop” is not wrong, but many readers find it confusing or even ridiculous, so you should reword your sentences to avoid the problem. Use a specific term such as “soldiers” or “Marines,” if appropriate. If not, use “service members” (or “servicemen” or “servicewomen,” if appropriate). If that is unacceptably awkward, then use “troops” as a last resort.
Literal Minded and The Grammar Devotional
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a doctoral degree in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com; and I’m Mignon Fogarty, author of The Grammar Devotional, which makes a great graduation gift.
 Sir John Dalrymple. 1788. Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 4. Accessed at Google Books, April 4, 2010. https://j.mp/9mEfVX
 “[f we take 16,000 into our Pay, fresh Troops must be raised for that Purpose, and, I hope, I may say, without any Derogation, that 16,000 Hanoverians newly raised, are not so good as 16,000 of the Veteran Troops of any other Potentate in Europe.”
The History and Proceedings of the Second Session of the Third Parliament of King George II, 1742-1743. Accessed at Google Books, April 4, 2010.
 John McWhorter. Mar. 27, 2007. “Who Do We Mean When We Say ‘Troops’?” Accessed Apr. 4, 2010. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9163122.
 Feb. 8, 2008. “Ask AP: Running backs and nuclear waste.” USA Today online. Accessed April 6, 2010. https://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-02-08-3285204303_x.htm
 Andrew Rosenthal. Nov. 24, 1990. “Mideast tensions; Bush says Syria supports the use of force on Iraq.” The New York Times online. Accessed April 6, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/11/24/world/mideast-tensions-bush-says-syria-supports-the-use-of-force-on-iraq.html
 Mark Liberman. Feb. 25, 2005. “Language change after childhood.” Post on Language Log, accessed April 7, 2010. https://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001924.html
Wilson Gray. Nov. 2, 2006. Post to the American Dialect Society listserv. Accessed April 7, 2010. https://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0611A&L=ADS-L&D=0&P=8934