The one and the many
We appear to have rattled a few readers with a secondary headline that said: “Millionaire Maryland couple don't judge themselves by how much wealth they've accrued but by how many people they've been able to help.” Some found the syntax a little lumpy, but others complained about using couple as a plural.
If we had used couple as a singular, no doubt there would have been complaints about that, particularly since its would then have been the appropriate pronoun.
Collective nouns like couple, which may be singular or plural, depending on context and convention, appear to push people into rigid stances. But the Associated Press is admirably succinct in making the necessary distinction:
“When used in the sense of two people, the word takes plural verbs and pronouns. The couple were married Saturday and left Sunday on their honeymoon. They will return in two weeks.
“In the sense of a single unit, use a singular verb: Each couple was asked to give $10.”
Sometimes circumstances compel us to stretch usages of collectives, as in the recent headline “At least 9 U.S. troops killed in Iraq.” Some readers complain, rightly, that a troop is a body of soldiers; they then say that troops must be used for military subdivisions, such as regiments, rather than individual soldiers.
Headline writers are up against the lack of adequate alternative vocabulary. Soldiers will not do, because the military personnel involved may include, for example, Marines. GIs is out, because the term is typically limited to enlisted men in the Army. A trooper is a cavalryman.
The sense of the word as referring to individuals rather than military units, moreover, is making its way into dictionaries. A similar fate has overtaken cohort, which, despite the apoplectic reaction of Latinists, has come to be used in the singular as a synonym for companion or even accomplice.
We will try, at least, to refrain from referring anywhere in the paper to a couple of troops.