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Is a Troop One Person or a Group?

Is a "troop" an individual soldier, group of soldiers, or both? Get tips on how to properly use the word "troop."

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #622

a picture of troops

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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.

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