Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There is a military command to Present Arms.

And, depending upon the military and the situation, the typical response is to either salute or hold one's weapon in front of them in the prescribed manner.

I've always wondered why this became the standard construction for this command in place of Present Your Arms or Present The Arms?

It just strikes me as a strange construct even for an imperative. It feels like it's missing an article or a possessive which would normally be present.

You wouldn't say: Wash plates!, or Open door!

Rather, you'd say: Wash your plates!, Open the Door!

Is this just a nod to brevity? Is there a historical reason for the deletion of articles from military jargon?

share|improve this question
13  
Articles, as well as other normal chunks of English, are often omitted from military jargon, like the manual of arms. –  John Lawler Mar 17 at 3:09
1  
@JohnLawler I know they are, but is there a history behind that? –  David M Mar 17 at 3:11
1  
French has the same characteristics: “Présentez… armes” whereas normal language would require “Présentez vos armes”. I suspect a common origin, and motivation — because the execute command should be a single syllable. –  Gilles Mar 17 at 9:00
    
The same reason they don't say " On your marks.... get set... BEGIN YOUR RACE AT THE PRESENT TIME!" –  Digital Chris Mar 17 at 17:42
1  
Much like "on your marks" lets you know that a sudden and abrupt "GO" is coming (and everyone should move simultaneously), the "Preseeeent..." lets everyone know that a sudden and abrupt "ARMS" is coming, and everyone should move simultaneously. –  Digital Chris Mar 17 at 17:45

5 Answers 5

up vote 25 down vote accepted

The command Present arms follows a drill and ceremony requirement, such as what's given in Field Manual 22-5 "Drill and Ceremonies" (FM 22-5). It's used to order a hand salute or to present the hand carried weapon.

This command and may others are delivered at a cadence that can be synchronized with marching steps, using what is called the command voice in section II of FM 22-5, paragraph 2-11.

Cadence, in commands, means a uniform and rhythmic flow of words. The interval between commands is uniform in length for any given troop unit. This is necessary so that everyone in the unit will be able to understand the preparatory command and will know when to expect the command of execution. For the squad or platoon in march, except when supplementary commands need to be given, the interval of time is that which allows one step (or count) between the preparatory command and the command of execution. The same interval is used for commands given at the halt. Longer commands, such as Right flank, MARCH, must be started so that the preparatory command will end on the proper foot, and leave a full count between the preparatory command and command of execution.

There are short commands, like halt, that can be said in a single step, but longer commands are broken into more steps. Present arms is broken into the preparatory command step present followed by the execution command step arms.

As to why one of these steps doesn't include the word your, you might consider this, from paragraph 2-7:

A correctly delivered command will be understood by everyone in the unit. Correct commands have a tone, cadence, and snap that demand willing, correct, and immediate response.

The U.S. Marine Corps Parris Island Drill Manual shows some more complicated commands, and gives a hint into what's not in these commands, and hints stingily, if for any reason you felt the need to create a new command, what should be part of a command and what should be left out.

Take for example this marching command: Column Of Three's To The Left MARCH and this command while halted: Take Interval to the Right MARCH.

What you see are complicated preparatory commands that may have definite articles, but no possessive pronouns.

share|improve this answer
1  
Excellent answer! –  Bradd Szonye Mar 17 at 6:30
1  
@David M I thought it was good background, but it did't answer your questions regarding the absence of your in "preset arms". I know I have heard cadenced commands like this: on your left,.. on your left,.. on your left, right, left,... Certainly new commands have been developed since Sven's referenced Russell of 1804, but I hadn't found any intervening info on how to actually create a command. Only how to deliver a command. I may have been drinking, too. I don't remember. –  Jim Mar 17 at 13:43
1  
Actually the bit about maintaining cadence with marching steps made perfect sense!!! Adding your or the would break the cadence. And you provided sources. Why not delete and repost. I'll accept it again. You deserve the rep for this answer!!!! –  David M Mar 17 at 13:58
1  
@David M - I guess I was feeling generous this weekend (banging head on wall!). I can't explain most of my runaways, they are hard to predict. –  Jim Mar 17 at 20:13
2  
I removed the community wiki. –  KitFox Mar 18 at 11:56

The Wikipedia article on drill commands indicates that "arms" is not used today as part of any drill command in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the U.K. But it appears in several U.S. drill commands: "present arms," "order arms," "right shoulder arms," "left shoulder arms," and "port arms."

One noteworthy feature of the present-day English-language drill commands listed in the Wikipedia entry (both British Commonwealth and U.S.) is that none of them include "your"—whether with "arms" or with any other noun. For example, U.S. commands include "open [your] ranks, march," "close [your] ranks, march," and "stand at [your] ease," in addition to all of the "arms" commands noted above; and British Commonwealth commands include "change [your] step on the march," "stand at [your] ease," and "mark [your] time."

The instruction "present arms" seems to be of British army origin and goes back more than 200 years, as we see from John Russell, Instructions for the Drill, and the Method of Performing the Eighteen Manoeuvres, Third Edition (1804). Here is the entire eighteenth manoeuvre, called Advancing in Line, as Russell details it:

THE CHIEF.

THE BATTALION WILL ADVANCE—March.

It marches 100 paces.

THE CHIEF.

Halt.

FIRE A VOLLEY OBLIQUELY TO THE RIGHT.

MAKE—Ready——PresentFire——Load.

FIRE A VOLLEY OBLIQUELY TO THE LEFT.

MAKE—Ready——PresentFire——Load.

THE BATTALION WILL ADVANCE—March.

When the Battalion has advanced 100 paces,

Halt.

FIRE TWO VOLLEYS TO THE FRONT, AFTER THE LAST, THE MEN WILL PORT ARMS AND HALF COCK.

BATTALION ReadyPresentFire——Load.

BATTALION Ready———PresentFire, (the men will port arms and half cock.)

SHOULDER—Arms——SHUT—Pans.

REAR RANKS, TAKE OPEN ORDER—March.

THE CHIEF, and the Lieutenant Colonel, now dismount, and come through the center into the front, as do the music ; every one takes his station exactly as they had been placed when receiving the general.

THE CHIEF, with his back to the regiment, gives the words,

THE BATTALION WILL ADVANCE—March.

On the word March, the music plays, and when the battalion has advanced within 50 paces of the general, THE CHIEF gives the word Halt—GENERAL SALUTE—PRESENT—Arms, music plays God Save the King, and the drummers beat a march.

When the music ceases, THE CHIEF, turning to the battalion, gives the words, SHOULDER—Arms.

REAR RANKS, TAKE CLOSE ORDER—March.

Russell's book (on page 180) lists a number of "words of command," none of them modified with possessives. These include "ORDER—Arms," "FIX—Bayonets," "SHOULDER—Arms," "PRESENT—Arms," "HANDLE—Cartridge," "DRAW—Ramrods," RAM DOWN—Cartridge," and "RETURN—Ramrods." To this list, the eighteenth manoeuvre adds the memorable "SHUT—Pans." Evidently, the absence of "your" before "arms" is part of a much more broadly applicable style of wording commands.

I suspect that the "your" dropped out long ago because members of the battalion or squad already knew that all of the orders were directed to them in connection with their individual arms, ramrods, cartridges, feet, marching order, or ease; and to include the possessive would be a waste of breath for the chief, who (then as now) clearly needed to conserve it for more important purposes.

share|improve this answer
1  
Good find with the John Russell source. I posted something a little more recent, and put it in wiki, since it didn't have the deeper historical traceability that your answer has. There was too much to just abridge it into a comment. –  Jim Mar 17 at 5:56
    
This is another great answer! –  David M Mar 17 at 12:06

I am only answering here as an ex-serving soldier in the Australian Regular Army. I have no technical expertise other than my in-service training (which didn't go into the historical significance of drill).

It comes down to the "preparatory" and "action" components. In the preparatory component, it is sufficient to get the information across succinctly, without ambiguity, and certainly without the need for unnecessary words.

For example, the addition of "your" in "present arms" serves no purpose. It is irrelevant if it is "your" arms or "the" arms.

However, in some commands, "your" (or "the") is definitive. For example:

"By YOUR left - MARCH"

"By THE left - MARCH"

(Those two above can mean EXACTLY the opposite if the squad is facing the rear of the drill square, explained further below)

"To YOUR right - TURN"

"To THE left - TURN"

(that last command can actually result in the squad turning RIGHT! if they are facing to the rear to begin with)

In all these commands, "the" and "your" are significant.

"Your" references the person. Your left, your right.

"The" references the drill area or the person calling the commands. "The" left will refer to the left of the field regardless of what direction the squad is facing.

Typical scenario, the squad is facing forwards, "the" and "your" are synonymous. However, if the squad is facing the rear of the field, "YOUR left" is the same as "THE right" because to turn to "the right (side of the field)" you must turn to "your left".

Likewise, if the squad is facing "to the right" already, then to have them face forward you would issue "to YOUR left, TURN". To issue the command "to THE left, TURN" would actually mean to do an about face.

This was a game most drill instructors would play on squads learning to march and turn on the drill square.

As a side note: Whilst referring to "arms", it is largely meant to mean the rifle, but in fact can refer to rifle, sword, and even that appendage attaching the hand to the shoulder. In a command, "present arms", if you are carrying a rifle or sword (for officers in more ceremonial situations), you would present such arms. Depending on the local, you may in fact salute or remain stedfast.

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks for the perspective! –  David M Mar 17 at 16:18

To this veterans ear it sounds perfectly normal. All drill commands are given in the same form: Preparatory command, Execute command. Having extra, non essential words would make it awkward.

share|improve this answer
2  
While I understand the logic, I'm looking for more of a historical/official reference on this. Is there a manual that describes how to "write a command", say? –  David M Mar 17 at 4:15
    
The manual has all the commands pre-written. Making up a new command is not wanted because the soldiers wouldn't know how to respond in drill. –  Oldcat Mar 17 at 17:44
    
Presumably it must happen occasionally, though. Who writes the manuals? –  user867 Mar 19 at 0:35

These answers are highly informative but go beyond what is necessary to explain the examples and provide a parsimonious answer.

Items in a list of instructions typically omit determiners, including possessive pronouns. "Break eggs into mixing bowl." "Insert middle and ring fingers into smaller holes and thumb into larger hole." "Position tongue beneath reed, lips around mouthpiece, and fingers of left hand on upper keys and of right hand on lower keys."

Remember, too, that the "Present arms" order is issued to a group; if that held for the dishwashing and door-opening examples, "Wash dishes" and "Open door" would be fine. In all of these cases the referents of the various nouns have been so fully identified in the context preceding the issuance of the order that determiners of any kind are superfluous.

share|improve this answer
    
This is a fairly reasonable answer, too. I guess we do truncate commands at times. But, I wonder how this came about in general. In particular if this habit followed the military example. –  David M Mar 18 at 20:37
    
For the reasons I've given, the military examples hold no special status over the myriad of examples I have alluded to. –  H Stephen Straight Jul 8 at 23:42

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.