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January 19th, 2005

A troop? / More about caps after colons

by Barbara Wallraff

Patricia Foley, of Midland, Mich., writes: “I have noted recent newspaper headlines such as ‘Nine troops killed in Iraq.’ This obviously refers to nine individuals. Why, then, isn’t a single casualty called a ‘troop’?”

Dear Patricia: Gosh, I wish that headline read more like “Nine troops awarded medals for their peacekeeping work.” But that’s not what you’re asking about. As you suggest, it’s illogical to put a number before “troops” and expect the phrase to mean that many people. Any dictionary will tell you that a “troop” in the military sense is a unit or group. So “nine troops” ought to be nine military units.

English isn’t always logical, though, and “nine troops” meaning that many people fills a gap in the language. That’s because “troops” is the least awkward term we have for members of more than one branch of the armed forces, or for military personnel without reference to the branch they belong to. “Soldiers,” “Marines,” “sailors” and “airmen” (as members of the U.S. Air Force, of either sex, are often called) are all more specific. If newspapers couldn’t use “troops” with a number, how would the headlines read? “Nine members of the military awarded peacekeeping medals”? “Seven soldiers, a female airman and a Marine lauded for peacekeeping work”? No, I’m afraid not. That’s unreal.

Michael P. Warr, of Stonington, Maine, writes: “Although I was born, raised and educated in Britain, I have been living in America since 1966. Over the years I have become somewhat inured to the corruption of my native language in this country, but I am far from indifferent. I was therefore appalled at your attempt, in a recent column, to justify the use of a capital letter following a colon. This is, quite frankly, a load of revisionist twaddle! A period -- or full stop, as we say in Britain -- denotes the end of a sentence; and as a capital letter is only used to begin a new sentence, it is only permissible after a period.”

Dear Michael: Excuse me? “Revisionist twaddle”? But I was arguing in favor of standard British practice, while acknowledging that standard American practice is slightly different. The Oxford Style Manual, from England’s Oxford University Press, sums up part of both standards like this: “Use the colon to introduce a list. ... Follow it with a capital letter only if the list comprises proper names, or more than one (in US English any grammatically complete) sentence.”

I love British English, but I do wish some people of British origin (ahem) would get over the idea that their standards are the true ones and that American English is somehow debased. The language we share has been cobbled together from bits of Saxon and Anglo-French and Latin and Old High German and dozens of other languages, and it continues to evolve to meet the needs of the people who speak and write it. Yes, Americans write “color,” not “colour,” say “sweater” instead of “jumper” and use more capital letters after colons. These habits -- like drinking beer cold, not at room temperature, and playing football with a ball that isn’t round -- are just customs, not failings.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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