Is it correct to refer to an attorney general or solicitor general as “General So-and-So”?
ANSWER: Not really. The trend has been to address attorneys general and solicitors general as if they were military officers, as in “General Starr, when will the report be available to the public?” Despite its prevalence, this is strictly speaking incorrect. In titles such as attorney general, the word general is not a noun, but a postpositive adjective — an adjective that follows rather than precedes the noun it modifies. Attorney general and solicitor general are two examples. Other examples include court-martial and notary public. But no one calls a notary public simply “public.” The word general in attorney general is every bit as much adjectival as it is in general counsel.
The practice of using general as a title appears to have been popularized by then-Justice William Rehnquist, who was otherwise known as a stickler for grammar. He used the term in this way as early as 1980. Meanwhile, the Chief Justice in that era, Warren Burger, fastidiously addressed the Solicitor General as “Mr. Solicitor General.” But from the outset of his chiefship, Chief Justice Rehnquist used general as a title, undoubtedly helping to spread the linguistic innovation. Lamentably, the practice has continued with Chief Justice Rehnquist’s successor and has been adopted by other members of the Court as well. Even transcript references to the Solicitor General now simply state “General Clement,” “General Kneedler,” and “General Verrilli.” Although the practice of militarizing high legal offices will likely persist, the sticklers will abstain (correctly) from using “General” in this way.
Incidentally, the Surgeon General is a uniformed officer of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps — not a general, though, but a vice admiral.
On the other hand, if Supreme Court justices are saying it, perhaps it’s correct de jure, though not de facto. As Justice Robert H. Jackson once declared: “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.”
Postscript: The rhetorical term for Jackson’s figure of speech there — reversing parallel words in adjoining clauses — is chiasmus.
Source: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 387 (3d ed. 2011).
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