Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Troop Is Two Boots on the Ground

Posted by Neal on November 11, 2009

Back in 2004, I blogged about noncollective troops — you know, 10,000 troops amounting to 10,000 people, not 10,000 groups of people. For Veteran’s Day I have revisited the subject over at Visual Thesaurus. It turns out quite a few writers on language have had something to say about troops, and I have to say that of all the pieces written on this subject, my VT column is one of them. Over there you’ll find a synthesis of what’s been said about troops in the 21st century … at least on the issue of what numbers can be used with troops, and whether one troop can legitimately refer to one person now. However, there was one kind of complaint about troops that was a bit different, different enough for me to cut it out of an article that was already running longer than I wanted it to. I’ll talk about that one here.

As I wrote in the VT column, “Some reject [noncollective troops] with any number; some allow it only with large numbers; some allow it with any number greater than one.” It turns out that there are some speakers who rail against noncollective troops when it’s not accompanied by any number at all. Why? I believe it has to do with another way of looking at noncollective troops: as a pluralia tantum noun, or in plain English, a plural-only noun. According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, some nouns are plural-only because they denote substances made of particles that are of themselves insignificant; for example, grits. The insignificance of the particles in nouns like grits taints some speakers’ feelings toward troops with the idea that it trivializes the individual soldiers. In a 2007 piece on NPR (also mentioned in the VT column) John McWhorter makes this complaint. It is echoed in Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book The Age of American Unreason, when she writes that the use of noncollective troops “is more than a grammatical error; turning a soldier — an individual with whom one may identify — into an anonymous-sounding troop encourages the public to think about war and its casualties in a more abstract way.” (p. 6)

Of course, I can’t argue with McWhorter’s and Jacoby’s feelings. If troops strikes them as trivializing individual members of the armed services, that’s how the word is for them. Nevertheless, I don’t think noncollective troops arose as a plural-only noun. To say that it did is to call the existence of the singular, semantically similar troop a coincidence. I think that what happened is the reverse of how my son and his peers (and others before them) decided that cleat was another name for a soccer shoe. Their shoes have projections on the bottom called cleats. Someone wearing the shoes is said to be wearing cleats. Someone who doesn’t know the word has to decide whether this plural refers to the two shoes (i.e. the two SETS of cleats), or to the projections on the bottoms of the shoes (i.e. the twenty or so INDIVIDUAL cleats). My son and his peers decided the former, and now talk about putting on one or both cleats. Thus, cleat has gone from being an individual noun to a collective noun. Troops, I maintain, went in the opposite direction. For someone unfamiliar with the word, does troops refer to the GROUPS of soldiers within a large number of soldiers, or does it refer to the INDIVIDUAL soldiers? If you choose the latter, troop has now become a noncollective noun.

Pictorially, troops was used as in the first picture below, then reinterpreted as in the second picture. Cleats went in the opposite direction.

Collective and noncollective noun

On top: collective noun. On bottom: noncollective noun.

Another thought that occurred to me while I was writing the VT column was how troops is being subjected now to the same kind of disapproval as another collective noun that turned noncollective: people. It began as a collective noun meaning a group of human beings, but somewhere along the way was interpreted as a plural (an irregular plural but still a plural) referring to the members of the group. And, as with troops vs. soldiers, there were until quite recently complaints about the use of people instead of persons with specific numbers. For a more detailed discussion, see this post on Language Log. I’d guess there are several reasons we don’t (as far as I know) have one people meaning one person. First of all, people doesn’t have an obviously plural –s suffix on it that could be removed to make a singular. Second, people is generally taken to be not only an irregular plural, but in fact the suppletive plural of the singular person. In other words, we don’t need to make people singular; person is already its singular form. Neither of those conditions holds for troops; it has an –s suffix, and there isn’t already good singular form for what troops refers to: soldier (for some reason) is taken to refer exclusively to members of the Army, and member of the armed forces is too long.

However, now that I’ve become comfortable with the polysemy of troop, what do I do with a sentence like We put 5,000 boots on the ground? I no longer try to multiply 5,000 troops by some number of people in a troop, but I do still divide 5,000 boots on the ground by the number of boots per soldier. But I find I still don’t know how many members of the armed services we’re talking about when a newscaster says something like

We put about 5,000 boots on the ground.

So is that 2,500 soldiers? I know for some people, two boots on the ground are two (noncollective) troops; for example, a soldier in Iraq who wrote an open letter with the title “A grievance from a ‘boot on the ground'”.

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8 Responses to “A Troop Is Two Boots on the Ground”

  1. kip said

    Interesting to know that about “people”, I had no idea it had such a history. I was only ever taught in school that “people” is the (irregular) plural of “person”, the same way “sheep” is the plural of “sheep”, “children” is the plural of “child”, and “fungi” is the plural of “fungus”. Then later I was taught the singular usage of “people”, to mean something like “ethnic group”, i.e. “the Jews as a people have faced persecution for millenniums” (millennia? if we’re on the subject of irregular plurals…).

    I know that I’ve seen “persons” before, but it always strikes me as an unusual wording when they could have just used the word “individuals” (which is usually a better substitute for “persons” than “people” is). Using “persons” with a number, such as “five persons” (as S&W recommends), is an outright error in my ears.

    • Neal said

      Now that I’ve become aware of the earlier usages, it really stands out to me as I read a book published in 1950 to Doug and Adam. The author consistently says persons where I would have said people.

  2. The Ridger said

    I never really thought about it, but for me “5,000 boots on the ground” is 5,000 troops … persons… people.

    I don’t have any problem with troop as an individual, as long as it’s not capitalized!

  3. To me, “X boots on the ground” means “X/2 soldiers” — with some correction, of course, for amputees.

  4. Ran said

    > We put about 5,000 boots on the ground.

    Presumably the government only puts one boot on the ground per trooper, and each trooper is responsible for putting his/her other boot there alongside it?

  5. Ran said

    By the way, instead of linking to your past posts, you’ve linked to the pages to edit those posts. Unfortunately, WordPress seems to think I shouldn’t be allowed to do that. 😦

  6. viola said

    It took a lot of courage to set aside your apotemnophobia to consider the amputees in the count.

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