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Troop, troops, trooper, troupe, trouper

An inquiry comes in from another newspaper about using troop for an individual soldier rather than for a military unit:

We had a headline that referred to the mother of "a troop killed in Iraq." Someone called to complain, saying an individual soldier would be referred to as a "trooper." Do you think "troop" in this instance would indicate an individual, or a group of soldiers?

Several points converge here.

No, you do not want to use troop for an individual soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. For an individual, you would want to specify the branch of the armed services. And you don’t want to use trooper, because it would suggest a member of the state police or some similar outfit.

There are people who object to troops in the sense of “eight troops killed in a bombing,” on the ground that a troop, strictly speaking, is a distinct unit of the military — as a troop of cavalry. But troops for soldiers is a usage of long standing. It is particularly useful when the group includes members of different branches; you do not want, you really do not want, to refer to a Marine as a soldier.

Finally, since the terms are frequently confused, recall that a troupe is a traveling body of performers, and that when you refer to someone as a real trouper, it is in the sense of “the show must go on,” not “be all you can be.”


Statistical note

This marks the 400th post on this blog. If you’re new to it, you might find it of interest to rummage about in the archives. There are individual posts that persons of quality have found amusing.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 AM | | Comments (11)



Congrats on the 400th post! But certainly, you must realize how intimidating it would be to leave a comment here...

David Hobby

How tremendously disrespectful to that individual's service, that you can't be bothered to discover whether he (or she) was a soldier or a Marine or a member of the National Guard or the Army reserve. Or even whether said servicemember was male or female (hence, "serviceman" or "servicewoman").

"Troops" for "several members of the armed services whose exact branch and sex is not important yet and may be hard to ascertain or unwieldy to specify."

Congratulations on the 400th post!

I'm a recent fan and I look forward to reading posts 500, 1000 and beyond!

When I was in the Army, singular "troop" was used to denote a single EM (enlisted man). And plural "mens" (as in "youse mens") was in use to denote a group of male soldiers. That was at a time when the feminine form of "troop" was "wac."

Congratulations -- and many thanks.

At 500, do you become a Kentucky Colonel?

As to Ms. Hohlfeld's comment:

"Troops" does not seem disrespectful in the context of an article describing several persons whose branches of service and gender are not specified and cannot be readily determined. Neither does it seem disrespectful, say, in a headline that has to use a word to characterize a group of people who are identified as members of different branches of the armed services.

As to Mr. Livingston's comment:

It is possble that I am the last living Kentuckian not to have been commissioned a Kentucky colonel.

Geez, did I forget to finish my sentence? I think so.

I agree w/ you that to use "troops" for the group isn't disrespectful; that's what I meant to say in my second paragraph. Thanks for establishing that, since I goofed.

But if you're going to talk about a single soldier/Marine/sailor/airman/reservist/guardsman, you really ought to care enough to find out the accurate, specific information about his service. Especially if he died giving it.

(want to add; I understand "airwoman" / "she"; just ran out of patience for clunking up the sentence)

Mr. Waldeman, that's interesting, that the "insider jargon" uses "troop" for enlisted (not officer).

Personally I think that "troops" is deplorable when referring to soldiers because of that ambiguity with "troopers"/"troupers"... it makes the soldiers less human to refer to them as something that is more like an amorphous blob than an individual, real human being. And we've seen so much of the sanitization/dehumanization of the people, soldiers, civilians, etc., whose lives have been affected in this that I just see it as a continuation of that process. Regardless of the history, it's being used to a very specific effect now and I find that distasteful.

Not that I can put that into my copy editing; it's just a personal preference. Heck, I don't even think I'm allowed to opine on it here. :)

If I get fired, will you hire me? :D

"Personally I think that "troops" is deplorable when referring to soldiers because ... it makes the soldiers less human to refer to them as something that is more like an amorphous blob than an individual, real human being."

Jen, with all due respect, you obviously haven't had the experience of being an enlisted person in the military.

No, I have not. I apologize for having offended and defer to your experience.

you do not want, you really do not want, to refer to a Marine as a soldier.

Well, in terms of historic uses, you don't want to call any sort of mariner a "soldier" either.

A longstanding nautical insult is to call someone in the crew a "soger." Or "sodjer." This applies to mercantile and also to naval crewmen.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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