LawProse Lesson #117

LawProse Lesson #117

What’s the plural of subpoena duces tecum? ANSWER: Subpoenas duces tecum. This phrase — like any other containing a postpositive adjective — takes its plural on the noun at its beginning, the phrase’s “head.” Similar plurals include these: accounts payable accounts receivable acts malum in se agents provocateur ambassadors extraordinary annuities certain attorneys general bodies corporate brothers-in-law (but my in-laws) chattels personal chattels real cities proper commanders-in-chief conditions precedent conditions subsequent corporations de facto corporations de jure courts-martial dates certain easements appurtenant fathers-in-law fees simple heirs apparent letters patent letters rogatory letters testamentary mayors pro tem ministers plenipotentiary mothers-in-law notaries public parties defendant poets laureate postmasters general pounds sterling presidents-elect professors emeriti rights-of-way secretaries general sisters-in-law sums certain surgeons general Of course, some of these are antiquated: today, we tend to refer to defendants rather than parties defendant. Meanwhile, over decades and centuries, the headword can shift. Even though we say sums certain, most literate writers would probably use sum totals, just as they would use totals as a plural noun when needed. Fortunately, we have a limited number of postpositive adjectives in English. No matter how many sticklers for grammar might inhabit a single law office, these pluralizing points seem unlikely to foment battles royal. By the way, a story in The Onion (9-20-2000) placed the late language maven William Safire in a Manhattan Burger King ordering “two Whoppers Junior.” In an online discussion transcribed and published in The Washington Post (4-23-2008), Safire acknowledged ordering “Whoppers Junior” — but only “because it gets a funny look or a laugh.” Sources: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 685, 692, 856 (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern American Usage 638, 648 (3d ed. 2009). Thanks to Cecelia Soboleski and Michael Starkman for suggesting this topic.

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