This is a sentence that I have seen:

I spied them in the rear ranks, looking as uncomfortable as i felt

I found it in a standard English book of my high school. It is from the story My Schooldays as an Indian Girl by Zitkalka-Ska, and can also be found in the Atlantic Monthly Volume 85 (1900). I do not know the meaning of the entire first clause. I found a definition of rear rank, from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913): "The rank or line of a body of troops which is in the rear, or last in order."

I am still not satisfied. Please give me a satisfactory meaning.

  • What is the context? The rear ranks of what?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:32
  • Are you asking about 'spied' or about 'rear ranks' or about both or about more. I'm confused.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:39
  • Note that "rear ranks" might be used figuratively; eg, to refer to the portion of a class of students making poorer grades.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 22:56
  • Hi Selena: In the future, remember that Stack Exchange requires all quotations to be properly attributed. I have done you the favor of locating what seems to be the likely original source of your quotation, but please at least give us the name of the book, and its author in the future. Also, I think it would be in everybody's interest if you added an explanation regarding why that definition fails to satisfy you into the body of the question. I would do it myself, but since I am not you, I can only guess at what your difficulty might be.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 23:21
  • Perhaps the schoolgirls at that school in 1900 would line up in formation at the beginning of the day. And the author saw "them" (whoever is referred to here) in the rear ranks of that formation. Unless you tell us more context of the quote, we can only make guesses like this.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jan 24, 2018 at 23:57

4 Answers 4


This part of the story is taking place in a school. The sense "rear ranks" is almost the same as the one you have already, but instead of soldiers in the back of a combat formation, it is referring to some students that are in the back of a line (the boys' line marching in from the opposite door).


"Rear ranks" is a term derived from military formation..
In column formation, "rear ranks" are those marching in the rear of the column.
Simply, the "ranks" are the width lines of a column, the "files" are the length lines.

From column formation we get the terms "up through the ranks", and, "single file"


From sniper cross-hair point because the UAV spotted her, "I spied them in the rear ranks" means she viewed overlooking the troops on to her forward horizon from the rear atop a hill or a serene carousing zenith point bathing while using a dual view binocular's or telescope.

The rear ranks mean the troops charging on the rear lines, and are the same ranks (not badges as in school) non-comissioned enlisted men and officer guarding the frontines. The General can be anywhere within the troops.

Which is meta first, second or third positions does not seem to matter as It's all literary fiction anyway. Rear ranks in modern times means scrambling around the cannons, tanks, on ditches etc., unlike the civil war all lined up ready, aim, fire!


you saw them or found them or spied them.

spied; spying transitive verb 1 : to watch secretly usually for hostile purposes 2 : to catch sight of : see 3 : to search or look for intensively


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