LawProse Lesson #116

LawProse Lesson #116

What’s the plural form of attorney general? And what is the plural possessive?       In American English, attorneys general is the correct plural form. The British prefer attorney-generals (the Brits have long hyphenated the phrase). Generally, a compound noun made up of a noun and a postpositive adjective (one that follows its noun) is pluralized by adding –s to the noun, as with heirs apparent and causes of action. But we add –s at the end of closed compounds, as with all words ending in –ful {spoonfuls, handfuls}. And how do you make the plural phrase attorneys general into a possessive? You don’t, preferably. You might try to make a case for 35 attorneys general’s briefs, but you’d induce more head-scratching than readerly agreement. To avoid any miscues, the better course is to rephrase with an of-genitive. So if you want to discuss the briefs of more than one attorney general, simply say the briefs of the attorneys general. Fortunately, most jurisdictions have only one attorney general at a time, so the plural-possessive form is not a problem you’re likely to encounter often. The British have it easier: 35 attorney-generals’ briefs. Tallyho! Sources: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 94, 685 (3d ed. 2009). The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 7.14, at 111 (2d ed. 2006). Thanks to Daniel K. Crane-Hirsch and Roberta E. Nalbandian for suggesting this topic.

1 thought on “LawProse Lesson #116”

  1. Hi Bryan-

    I’m a recent fan of your lessons. I print them out and we discuss them at the family dinner table, much to the chagrin of my teenagers. I hear mutterings about what constitutes “normal dinner conversation,” but my wife (a fellow grammar Nazi), at least, participates with enthusiasm.

    My 17 year-old daughter, Molly, did comment on this lesson, observing that your use of the of-genitive to solve this particular problem is used carte blanche in Spanish. She coined the phrase “going Spanish” to describe applying a lazy Band-Aid to a thorny grammatical problem. Your Lesson #115 example came to mind, when using “attorney fees” “presumably to avoid making a decision . . . altogether.” She wonders if there is a cultural link between the of-genitive practice and their daily afternoon siesta. I prefer not to judge.

    Keep up the good work.


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