Soldier? You mean “sailor,” right?

Don’t suppose we should expect Slate to know anything this basic, but when it said:

Manhunt Is Underway for Captured U.S. Soldier in Afghanistan

Western forces have launched a massive search for two U.S. Navy personnel who went missing Friday….

… it really meant, “U.S. sailor.”

Yeah, OK, technically, the SEALs are kinda like soldiers — supersoldiers, but soldiers. And nowadays even sailors and airmen are being trained in basic infantry tactics so they can do convoy guard duty because of the lack of regular dogfaces in our all-volunteer Army. And obviously, these guys were not on the water at the time of the incident.

But still, there is a difference. It’s pretty bad when a marine is called a soldier, but a sailor? Come on. That’s a distinction that’s existed forever.

Next thing you know, Slate will call its rifle a gun…

13 thoughts on “Soldier? You mean “sailor,” right?

  1. bud

    It’s a shame when so much time is devoted to military stuff. That goes for much of the media not just Brad. Why don’t we devote more time and effort to avoiding war and less in the details of waging it. Just remember what a gun/rifle is for. It’s for killing other people.

    By the way. Rifles are really a subset of guns. Rifles are specialized guns that have the barrel machined with grooves to provide a spin on the projectile.

  2. Brad

    Bud, we’re not going to agree about military matters, but surely you can agree with me on this: Wouldn’t it be nice that when media report on the military, they get the facts right?
    Especially the simple, basic facts right? Like the difference between a soldier and a sailor?

    One of the things that has bugged me my whole career is that folks in the MSM have a terrible time with basic accuracy in the following fields:
    — The military (the above is an example). This got worse as more post-draft kids joined the ranks of the MSM.
    — Firearms. The example that always comes to mind, although I can’t cite where or when I saw it, was the news story that described what the “bullet” from the shotgun did.
    — Religion. This probably comes from only writing about religion as it touches on sex and political conflict — which means failing to understand what it’s all about. Journalism in general is about the fleeting and the superficial; religion is very much the opposite.
    — Science. The more technical, the more clueless.
    — Business, money, numbers. Those may sound like three very different things, but I think the cognitive problem that most reporters have (and of course there are SOME wonderful business reporters out there, especially at places like the WSJ) touches on all three areas.

    Some papers do better than others. The New York Times, for instance, has over time generally gotten it right explaining issues bearing on religion and science. Or they used to. I’ve been less impressed in recent years.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Look, journalists are mostly humanities types with a very slightly more practical bent–they write on a shorter timeline than most. If you didn’t grow up a military brat, you might well not know a lot of the military stuff, and if you hadn’t converted, you might be equally clueless on the religion front.

    I would not know nearly as much math without one great teacher (Mrs. Tilly!) and would not know as much science without a father and husband with science degrees and great language skills. I learned business and money on the fly as a lawyer, but few journos have that background any more.

    I’m happy when they write well….

  4. Doug Ross

    What impact does calling a sailor a soldier have? Is it really that grievous an error? I know it offends your senses but I doubt that very many other people would stop long enough to even get worked up, nevermind write about it.

    I just finished a very good novel (Matterhorn) about Vietnam written by an ex-Marine. It follows a platoon as they attempt to take a hill near Laos late in the Vietnam war. It was (to me) an honest account of both the camaraderie that exists within the military and the stupidity that exists as you move up the chain of command. Too many colonels are interested in confirmed kills and using soldiers as machine gun fodder in order to get their next promotion. Possible kills were turned into confirmed kills as the information moved up the chain. Negative information was supressed, positive information was overstated. It’s the same today. The Pat Tillman story is a perfect example.

  5. scout

    I don’t know alot about the military but I agree strongly that language is important. I definitely see a trend that the media is becoming increasingly sloppy in it’s language usage and I find it disheartening. Language is important. It shouldn’t be too much trouble to find the right words, especially when words are your job.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    @ scout– I love ya, baby, but “increasingly sloppy in it’s language”? Look at it again. Brad needs to enable the “edit your own comment” feature.

  7. bud

    I think of a soldier, regardless of which branch of service he’s in, as any military person waging battle on land. A sailor is a military person serving on a ship or boat. An airman is someone who serves on or services aircraft. Regardless of the dictionary definition that’s the way I think of it.

  8. bud

    John Kerry was a sailor, John McCain an airman, Max Kleland a soldier and George W. Bush an idiot. Whoops, couldn’t resist.

  9. Doug Ross


    Kerry’s a real sailor these days. He decided to dock his yacht in Rhode Island instead of Massachusetts to save several hundred thousand in taxes. Guess he didn’t get enough of a break with the Bush tax cuts so he had to implement his own.

  10. scout


    You’re right. Since I declared that words matter, I’ve discovered numerous typos in my own posts. (Serves me right, I guess). An edit feature would be nice.

    I’m feeling pretty stupid though – I don’t see the issue with this one – is it the apostrophe in it’s? I guess it shouldn’t have one. I’m better with semantics and grammar than mechanics/punctuation.

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    “It’s” is a contraction for “it is”–the possessive form of “it” is “its”– no apostrophe. I make tons of typos when I post, because I get so involved.

    My brother and father are/were editors, so we have weird conversations around the dinner table….

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