troop ‘servicemember’

(From a while back, but this exchange, on a very small bit of usage, between SRA (Stephen R. Anderson, the Dorothy R. Diebold Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at Yale University, now living in North Carolina) and AMZ (me), came during various medical crises on my part, so never got posted. But now …)

The usage issue set out in 7/18 e-mail from SRA to AMZ:

I guess lots of people send you weird things they saw online for commentary. Let me join that crowd.

In a story today on NPR about the soldier (apparently on his way to discipline on an assault charge) who ran across the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom into the arms of the North Koreans, we read that

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he expected to have more information on the man in the coming hours and days.

“I’m absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop,” he told reporters during a Tuesday briefing, offering little other information than what has already been confirmed.

He obviously is referring to this individual guy as the troop he’s concerned about. I can’t find any instances of troop as a singular referring to an individual and not a group, but I’m not all that good at Google-searching for that kind of thing. The singular exists, of course, but it’s not the singular of [our] troops. Is this somehow a usage in the military?

AMZ reply that day:

This is very annoying: I know I have posted about this very phenomenon, and I have fairly elaborate indices of my postings on various topics, including C/M noun usage [There is a Page on my blog about my postings on C/M usage], but I can’t find my SG C troop material, so I’m doing this from hazy recollection. but I believe that this is indeed a military usage (and only there). As I recall, military sources use it amongst themselves, but not to outsiders, and outsiders find it just weird when they come across it.

Amplified by AMZ later that day:

There is the question of why the military got into messing with troop in the first place. It actually provides a handy way of referring to just one of these people, without falling afoul of a large range of candidate possibilities, each of which is inappropriate in one way or another, a weird solution, but not crazy. but even military people saw that ordinary people would not be comfortable with their solution, and kept it largely to themselves. However, there is one felicitous solution to the needed form that avoids all the pitfalls I’m aware of: servicemember. clunky, but, um, serviceable. I believe that many military sites now use it in talking to a general audience.

Still more from SRA the next day (7/19):

Not to prolong this, but my wife Janine (who is Swiss and whose English is about as good as mine, but is sometimes unsure of her judgments) reports that a while ago she encountered this singular troop as well. She is a member of something called the Presidential Prayer Team … Regularly she receives bulletins telling her who to pray for. Once she was asked to pray for a troop (they don’t give names or any other information, to protect privacy), and she naturally assumed it was a group somewhere. Later she was surprised to learn that the troop she had been asked to pray for was an individual servicemember somewhere in Iraq.

What’s going on seems to be connected with the problem of defective paradigms. Troops is a plural, and appears to belong to a paradigm, but for most of us (not in the military), the singular is defective, presumably being excluded by the existing singular troop with a collective sense. This is a motivation for defectiveness of which I can’t remember seeing other cases, though if I were to look back at the proceedings of a conference I participated in in London some years ago, I might find some. But maybe you already noted this.

AMZ’s brief, but not at all helpful, response:

Nice observation. I don’t believe I had previously noted the defectiveness issue.



3 Responses to “troop ‘servicemember’”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    I was also unfamiliar with the singular ‘troop’ in this context. My first reaction to reading the first quoted section was that he said ‘troops’, meaning he was concerned with the welfare of all service members (the amount of context given doesn’t preclude that reading) and that he was misheard, misquoted, or there was a typographical error.

  2. Michael Vnuk Says:

    When I searched using ‘Zwicky’ and ‘troop’, I found that you posted on Language Log about ‘troop’ at
    Is that what you were trying to find?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah, it didn’t occur to me to do that search, because I knew it wasn’t on AZBlog, and it never occurred to me that I might have written about it on *Language Log* — 18 years ago!

      In any case, from AMZ on Language Log, 2/25/05, “Look lively, troop!”

      Geoff Pullum
      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 varety 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?

      As it turns out, servicemember is where the military evntually went, for public consumption at any rate.

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