So what do we call a bunch of troops?

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* Editor’s note: Debra is on vacation. This column first ran in 2003.

Some people get tweaked about environmental issues. Others get riled up over animal rights. My tights get in a twist over language. And if I hear the word “troops” misused one more time by the media, my tights will twist off at the toes.

Typically, you hear “troops” misused in some evening news report on the latest carnage taking place in Iraq. A dusty reporter in a khaki vest with some bombed-to-bits street in the background will report that “Twelve troops were killed today outside Baghdad.”

The first time I heard a statement like that, I gasped in horror. Twelve troops wiped out? My God, that’s hundreds of soldiers in one swipe. But I soon figured out that many reporters use the word “troops” interchangeably with the word “soldiers.” They do not mean the same thing.

The first time I heard a reporter say “troops” instead of “soldiers,” I figured it was an isolated slip of the tongue. But no, stories of “troops” being injured or killed continue. I’m astounded that network news editors haven’t caught this, but maybe they’re too obsessed with the latest details of the Laci Peterson Summer Blockbuster Murder Mystery. Who has time to fret over accuracy and grammar (let alone sensitivity to that poor woman’s family) when there’s Nielson ratings at stake.

At the risk of my media snobbery showing, I’d like to say that this “troops” confusion is confined to televised news, where a “story” consists of four or five sentences about something before dashing on to four or five sentences about something else, until digging into the really pertinent current events, such as how Drew Barrymore got along with Cameron Diaz while filming the latest installment of “Charlie’s Angels.” But it’s not just TV. Newspaper journalists are writing story after story about troops when the subject is actually soldiers.

But maybe it’s not the media’s fault. Maybe some general with 17 stars on his shoulder knocked the “er” off trooper one day and started calling soldiers “troops.” I don’t care if it was Patton himself. It’s sloppy and it’s inaccurate. If you won’t take my word for it, look it up in the dictionary. “Troop” means several and “troops” means several severals.

For all those reporters out there who can’t grasp simple relationships between numbers and language, let’s straighten this out once and for all: A troop is a group. In military terms, a troop is a group of soldiers. Not one. More than one. Usually many. A soldier can be a trooper but he cannot be a troop any more than a football player can be a team. The “er” matters, guys.

“Troops” means more than one troop. Several groups of soldiers. Groups of troops. You can say “troops” if there’s more than one troop in the group. If there’s only one troop in the group, it doesn’t matter there are 50 soldiers or 50,000. There is still only one troop.

For those still struggling with this concept, we’ll take a field trip to the local kindergarten, where today we’re learning about numbers. The teacher passes out papers divided into boxes and in each box, there’s 10 cows. (And since this is California, they’re happy cows.) Under each group, there’s a number. We take our big red crayons and circle the number of cows that match the number. “3” means circle three cows, “4” means circle four cows, and so on.

All finished? Wonderful! A shiny gold star for you!

Now, let’s put our crayons away because it’s time to learn about the names of things. Today we’ll learn what groups of animals are called. Groups of fish are called schools. Groups of puppies are a litter. And we call groups of cows (happy or otherwise) “herds.”

Good job, kids. Class dismissed.

Oddly enough, reporters don’t have any trouble grasping the animal group concept. They understand groups of cows. If the evening news team goes out on location to report on 20 cows missing from a farmer’s herd, the reporter correctly tells us that 20 cows were stolen. He doesn’t tell us that 20 herds were stolen. Unless that farmer and 19 of his closest buddies had their entire herds snatched.

Let’s jump into the abstract now, fellow journalists. You can make the mental leap from animals to soldiers, I know you can. Focus now. Breathe. It’s a simple little exercise in logic. Just complete the sentence: Cow is to herd as soldier is to (blank).

You can do it. Furrow those brows. Concentrate. Tweeze that answer from the sludge of your gray matter.

Did you say “troop”? If so, good for you! Go forth and report, and sin no more. If you’re still scratching your head and pondering, hook up with a kindergartner for some one-on-one tutoring before you get in front of a camera or behind a keyboard again. You don’t get to do any more reporting until you can lasso the correct number of cows with the red crayon and tell us what they’re called.

As for our troops, the only story I’m really interested in is the one that says “The last American troops have left Iraq and are headed home.” And that goes for all the groups of troops.

— Email Debra at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.comwww.edebra.com and www.ipinion.com

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  1. “If you won’t take my word for it, look it up in the dictionary. ‘Troop’ means several and ‘troops’ means several severals.”

    I don’t know if thesaurus.com is considered authoritative, but it considers troopers and troops to be synonyms:

    http://thesaurus.com/browse/trooper

    It seems that in the usages you don’t like, troops is used to mean troopers. That can be as few as two people.

    A trooper is an individual soldier, usually in a cavalry unit. Trooper had that meaning before it came to be applied to mounted police officers and much later came to mean highway patrol officers. A paratrooper is any soldier or other military fighter who enters combat in a parachute.

    “A dusty reporter in a khaki vest with some bombed-to-bits street in the background will report that ‘Twelve troops were killed today outside Baghdad.'”

    Twelve troopers is 12 people. So if troops is a synonym of troopers, then twelve troops killed is also 12 people.

    Note: Don’t get upset that words change meaning over time. Languages are like all organisms: they evolve. Unless you are a linguistic fundamentalist who thinks words were formed by God on the 6th day in their current form and never should change, accept that almost every word exists in an evolutionary continuum.

    Here is a fun example of a word which changed meaning a long time ago: “For about two hundred years after it arrived in the language in the thirteenth century girl was indeed a general term for any young person. If a writer wanted to make clear the sex of the person, he had to add a qualifier: knave girl for a boy, and gay girl for a young woman. But by the sixteenth century the word had shifted to our modern sense.”

  2. “If you won’t take my word for it, look it up in the dictionary. ‘Troop’ means several and ‘troops’ means several severals.”

    I don’t know if thesaurus.com is considered authoritative, but it considers troopers and troops to be synonyms:

    http://thesaurus.com/browse/trooper

    It seems that in the usages you don’t like, troops is used to mean troopers. That can be as few as two people.

    A trooper is an individual soldier, usually in a cavalry unit. Trooper had that meaning before it came to be applied to mounted police officers and much later came to mean highway patrol officers. A paratrooper is any soldier or other military fighter who enters combat in a parachute.

    “A dusty reporter in a khaki vest with some bombed-to-bits street in the background will report that ‘Twelve troops were killed today outside Baghdad.'”

    Twelve troopers is 12 people. So if troops is a synonym of troopers, then twelve troops killed is also 12 people.

    Note: Don’t get upset that words change meaning over time. Languages are like all organisms: they evolve. Unless you are a linguistic fundamentalist who thinks words were formed by God on the 6th day in their current form and never should change, accept that almost every word exists in an evolutionary continuum.

    Here is a fun example of a word which changed meaning a long time ago: “For about two hundred years after it arrived in the language in the thirteenth century girl was indeed a general term for any young person. If a writer wanted to make clear the sex of the person, he had to add a qualifier: knave girl for a boy, and gay girl for a young woman. But by the sixteenth century the word had shifted to our modern sense.”

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