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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

Nonsexist Language

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.

References

[1] Sir John Dalrymple. 1788. Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 4. Accessed at Google Books, April 4, 2010. http://j.mp/9mEfVX

[2] “[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.

http://j.mp/dgiKCK

[3] John McWhorter. Mar. 27, 2007. “Who Do We Mean When We Say 'Troops'?”  Accessed Apr. 4, 2010. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9163122.

[4] Feb. 8, 2008. “Ask AP: Running backs and nuclear waste.” USA Today online. Accessed April 6, 2010. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-02-08-3285204303_x.htm

[5] 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. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/11/24/world/mideast-tensions-bush-says-syria-supports-the-use-of-force-on-iraq.html

[6] Mark Liberman. Feb. 25, 2005. “Language change after childhood.” Post on Language Log, accessed April 7, 2010. http://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. http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0611A&L=ADS-L&D=0&P=8934

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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