"two hundred troops"

Edith Moravcsik edith at UWM.EDU
Wed Jan 31 16:21:32 UTC 2007

Talking about number: it is really interesting how the word "troops" is used these days.

"Troop" originally was a collective noun referring to a group of people. But more recently it has also been  used in reference to individuals. Thus "a hundred troops" primarily refers to a hundred soldiers and not to a hundred groups of them.

What is particularly interesting is that, when it is used for a plurality of invididuals, it sounds better (to me) if the numeral is large: "a hundred troops" is better than "five troops" or "two troops". And using the singular "troop" in reference to a single person is even stranger (?"Over there I saw a troop") although Mickey Noonan reports to have found occurrences of it on the web, some from The New York Times. 

Mickey has also pointed out to me that "troop" may not be used in American military language for a unit anymore and this may reduce somewhat the ambiguity of the collective versus individual use of the word.

The meaning change of "troop" is similar to the story of the word "folk", which was also merely a collective noun earlier but now "folks" is used for a plurality of individuals although its use with a numeral (?"two folks") sounds strange (at least to my non-native ears).

Another somewhat analogous case is "people" - also a collective originally I believe but now used for individuals. But it is not quite like "troops" and "folks" since you cannot say "peoples" for a plurality of individuals.

Interestingly, in Hungarian, too, the word for "people" ("ne'p") - a collective noun - can be used in the plural to refer to a plurality of individuals; but it does not sound right to me with numerals and the singular cannot be used for a single individual. 

A similar phenomenon is mentioned in G. Corbett's book Number (Cambridge UP, 2000, 119): Proto-Slavic derived collective stems have been reanlysed as plural noun stems in various Slavic languages.
To round out the picture: collective markers evolving into additive-plural markers
are attested for several languages.


Edith A. Moravcsik
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Foreign
     Languages and Linguistics
University of Wisconsin-
Milwaukee, WI 53201-0413

E-mail: edith at uwm.edu
Tel: (414) 229-6794
Fax: (414) 229-2741
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