February 25, 2005

Look lively, troop!

Geoff Pullum complains about the use of the count noun troop for individual, rather than collective, referents:

Well, I heard it again today on NPR: the noun troops with a cardinal numeral. And this time with the smallest of all non-singular cardinal numerals: among the dead in one incident in Iraq today were two American troops, they said. Well, I'll tell you how that noun is in my variety of English: it's a plural-only noun that doesn't take cardinal numerals.

And in my variety of English too, but things are otherwise for other people. 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?

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 25, 2005 01:50 AM