LawProse Lesson #262: The plural of “attorney general.”

LawProse Lesson #262: The plural of “attorney general.”

What’s the plural of attorney general? The answer is attorneys general, not *attorney generals. (The asterisk signifies an always-erroneous form.) A federal judge in New York recently tried to defend his use of the incorrect plural, likening it to brigadier generals. But the analogy is misbegotten: brigadier general denotes a type of military general—and general is the noun. In attorneys general, by contrast, general is the adjective (called a “postpositive adjective” because it appears after its noun—a remnant of Romance language syntax). Essentially, it’s the same, historically, as general attorney. The word attorney is the noun. Big data will show that in printed books, the correct phrasing attorneys general outnumbers *attorney generals by a large ratio—powerful evidence of which form is Standard Written English. Allied to the erroneous plural is the widespread (perhaps irredeemable) use of general as if it were a government title: General Johnson or General Smith in reference to an attorney general or a solicitor general. This solecism has become exceedingly widespread, and its continuation all but ensures ongoing confusion about the correct plural forms attorneys general and solicitors general. As a matter of English usage, attorneys general is perfectly analogous to accounts receivable, conditions precedent, and notaries public. You might call these matters linguistic. Further reading: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 94 (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern English Usage 82 (4th ed. 2016).

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