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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

On “troop” and “troops”

Q: I’m constantly bugged by hearing people on CNN or Fox talk about two troops or three troops wounded in Iraq. I always thought the word “troops” referred to a body of soldiers or a large number of soldiers, not two or three. Am I wrong?

A: You and umpteen (roughly) other WNYC listeners have e-mailed me about “trooper/trouper/troop/troops” and all the permutations.

I agree with you that the use of “troops” to refer to a small number of soldiers, sailors, marines, and so on sounds clunky, but we seem to be in the minority on this.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “troops” can refer to soldiers. Neither reference suggests that the number of soldiers has to be large.

Even a relatively fussy language reference like Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) accepts the use of the plural “troops” to mean a small number of soldiers.

“In this sense, troops refers to individual soldiers (three troops were injured in the raid), but only when the reference is plural,” the usage guide says. “That is, a single soldier, sailor, or pilot would never be termed a troop.”

Although “some may object” to using “troops” to refer to individuals, the book adds, “the usage is hardly new.” It cites an 1853 item in the New York Times reporting that “three of the Government troops were killed and five wounded.”

“Today,” Garner’s says of the usage, “it’s standard.”

Since this issue has generated such interest, here’s a summary of current usage:

(1) “Troop” (singular) means a group. It can refer to a group of soldiers, Boy or Girl Scouts, or (loosely) any collection of people or animals or things.

(2) “Troops” (plural), in the military sense, properly refers to members of the armed forces collectively or a number of individuals (as in, “Five thousand troops were deployed.”) Although many authorities now accept the use of “troops” for a small number of service members, I’d recommend being more specific. Instead of saying “Three troops were wounded,” say “Three soldiers [or marines or sailors] were wounded.”

(3) “Trooper” is commonly used to refer to a state police officer or to a soldier in a horse, armored, air cavalry or other troop.

(4) A “trouper” is a member of a performing company (theatrical, singing, or dancing); the company itself is a “troupe.” But “trouper” also means someone who is a hard worker, a good sport, a reliable person, a mensch. Nine times out of ten, when someone uses a word that sounds like “trooper,” what he means is “trouper,” as in “What a trouper,” “She’s a real trouper,” and so on.

Again, I’m talking here about current usage. Feel free to read no further.

But in case you’re interested, the English military term “troop” (16th century) comes from Middle French troupe, which comes from Old French trope, probably derived from tropeau (flock, herd).

Tropeau, in turn, comes from the Latin troppus, which may derive from the ancient Germanic sources that gave us thorp and throp, the Middle English terms for hamlet or village. Hundreds of years later, we reborrowed it from the French!

The Oxford English Dictionary says the original English meaning of the singular “troop,” from the mid-1500s, was “a body of soldiers,” and soon after that it meant “a number of persons (or things) collected together; a party, company, band.”

In 1590 it acquired a technical meaning in the military: “A subdivision of a cavalry regiment commanded by a captain, corresponding to a company of foot and a battery of artillery.”

By 1598, the plural “troops” had come to mean “armed forces collectively,” the OED says. Here’s a 1732 citation: “Certain sums of money to raise troops.” And here’s another, from 1854: “The courage displayed by our troops.”

If you’ve read this far, congratulations. You’re a real trouper!

(This item was updated on Nov. 4, 2009)

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“A whole nother”

Q: Is it appropriate for someone to say, “That’s a whole nother issue.” Is “nother” a word?

A: No, “nother” is not a word. I discussed this in my first book (Woe Is I) because I found it so commonplace. You hear it a lot in speech but almost never see it in writing, which is true of so many bad usages.

“A whole nother” is probably a merging of “whole other” and “another.” It’s also been suggested that this error reflects a misunderstanding of the word “another” as two words: “a … nother.”

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Begging the question”

Q: My biggest pet peeve with language is the use of the phrase “beg the question.” When I hear it used on talk shows of a political nature it goes like this: “That statement he just made begs the question….” My understanding is that “begs the question” means “to answer a direct question with another question.”

A: The much-abused expression “begging the question” comes up now and then on WNYC, and we’ve talked about it two or three times that I can recall. Almost no one uses the phrase in its traditionally accepted meaning.

What it DOESN’T mean is raising, avoiding, prompting, mooting, or inspiring the question. And it also doesn’t mean countering with another, different question in an ironic way.

What it DOES mean is engaging in a logical fallacy, namely, basing your argument on an assumption that itself is in need of proof. The example Bryan A. Garner gives in his “Dictionary of Modern American Usage” is a good illustration: “Life begins at conception, which is defined as the beginning of life.”

Hope this helps. Personally, I think the expression has been ruined by misuse and now doesn’t mean much of anything. Too bad.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Tongue in Cheek”

Q: Where does the expression “tongue and cheek” come from?

A: The theory, though there’s not much evidence to support it, is that the phrase “tongue in cheek” comes from the practice of sticking your tongue in your cheek (thus making a bulge in your cheek) to keep from laughing. It originated in the 18th century and now is used to refer to something said facetiously or ironically. Example: “Ralph offhandedly stuck his arm in the garbage disposal,” said Tom, tongue in cheek.

Note that it’s not “tongue AND cheek.”

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Gone missing” or “went missing”

Q: I keep hearing “went missing.” Does that phrase make sense?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “go missing” (and its forms “went missing” and “gone missing”) as part of a large group of expressions used with the verb “go” to mean “to pass into a certain condition.” Similar forms would be expressions like “go native,” “go public,” “go ape,” “go [fill in adjective] on someone” (as in “will he go serious on us?”), and the like.

The term “went missing” was originally used to describe lost aircraft, and was first recorded in a book published in Australia in 1944, according to the OED. It’s been a common idiomatic expression in British Commonwealth countries for the last 60 years or so (“The dog has gone missing,” “Three days ago she went missing”).

Perhaps because of its British flavor, “gone missing” may have gained some cachet here. It may be an Anglophile affectation, but it’s not incorrect.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Uncategorized Usage

“Lighted” vs. “lit” and “dived” vs. “dove”

Q: When I went to school (I am 61 and actually learned how to diagram sentences), I learned the past tense of the verb “to light” was “lighted,” not “lit” and the past tense of “dive” was “dived,” not “dove.” Am I not correct and have not these two wrong conjugations become an integral part of the English language in America?

A: Both “lighted” and “lit” are considered standard past-tense and past-participle forms of the verb “to light.” There’s nothing grammatically wrong with a sentence like “I lit the fire.” This has been the case for a couple of hundred years.

But you’re right about “dived.” It is the predominant (and preferred) form, while “dove,” a more recent development, is still frowned upon by some usage experts. However, “dove” is no longer considered an outright error. It’s become acceptable in the irregular conjugation, along the lines of “drive/drove,” “speak/spoke,” “fling/flung,” and similar verbs (sometimes called “strong” verbs) from Old English.

In this respect, “dove” is an unusual development in English. Usually verb tenses tend to simplify and take on “-ed” endings over time (as in “dance/danced”), instead of going the other way and taking on old Anglo-Saxon endings.