Linguists are famous—or perhaps infamous—for our tolerant attitude toward language and how it changes. Given the widespread misconception that we are professional grammar police, we often disappoint people in saying that it is not scientifically “wrong” to say “less books” rather than “fewer books” or to say “irregardless” rather than “regardless.” Among the many reasons we view language so impartially is because attempts to deter people from speaking in ways they find natural essentially never work except superficially.
Which is why it is perhaps quixotic as well as vaguely unprofessional for me to venture that there is one common usage that I find not just irritating (in which case I would keep my complaint to myself) but almost unethical. That is how we use the word troops.
In the news media, troops is used as a stand-in for “soldiers.” Troop can refer to a group of soldiers, or Boy or Girl Scouts. But, conventionally, 1,000 troops is also used to mean 1,000 soldiers.
We—and here I mean people generally, not just linguists—don’t use troops this way only when the numbers are especially large. The Columbus Dispatch announced one morning in 2004, “Blast Kills 2 U.S. Troops.” The basic kink is that we cannot refer to a single person as a troop. Or: It happens, every now and then, but in ways that don’t feel quite right to most of us. For example, George Bush (and, believe it or not, père, not fils) once said, “As long as I have one American troop—one man, one woman—out there, I will work closely with all those who stand up against this aggression.”