The Grammarphobia Blog

How many boots on the ground?

Q: I’ve had my fill of the new and irritatingly ubiquitous expression “on the ground” in sentences like this: “Let’s speak about the state of charity work on the ground in Africa.” What possible meaning would be lost if “on the ground” were left out? My guess is that this phrase is of military origin, but now every pundit and reporter who wants to sound hip and savvy uses it.

A: I agree that “on the ground” is an empty, unnecessary phrase in a sentence like the one you’ve given. It’s more of a verbal tic than a meaningful usage.

Here are some other irritating and/or meaningless expressions used to death in the media: “in the final analysis,” “hit the ground running,” “when all is said and done,” “at the end of the day,” and “if you will.”

I’m guilty of the last one myself, though I try not to be. An example: “First I take off my left shoe, and then, if you will, my right.” Pretty lame. (No pun intended!)

A survey done some time ago in Britain found that “at the end of the day” was the most annoying cliché, in the opinion of those polled.

As for the origin of using “on the ground” to mean on the spot, the first published references in the Oxford English Dictionary, dating from the early 1960s, don’t have anything to do with the military.

Here’s a citation from the Jan. 10, 1963, issue of The Listener, a now-defunct British magazine: “There is no longer any good reason why the young … American writer should undergo a European apprenticeship unless it be to satisfy his curiosity or to watch the operations of another literature on the ground.”

But “on the ground,” as you’ve apparently noticed, has been frequently used in a military sense in recent years: “boots on the ground,” “troops on the ground,” “forces on the ground,” and so on.

In many, if not most, of these cases, the words “on the ground,” meaning in situ, add nothing to the sentences in which they appear.

Sometimes, in fact, the “on the ground” expressions may be downright confusing. Example: “The Marines had 20,000 boots on the ground.” Is that a reference to 10,000 marines or to 20,000 (perhaps each standing on one foot)?

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