Submitted by Greg Allen  •  October 10, 2011

attorneys general vs. attorney generals

Why is the term “attorneys general” correct? It used to be “attorney generals” ... There are multiple attorney generals.

If I was describing a group of Army generals, I wouldn’t say “Armies General” ... would I?

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Attorney General is a title consisting of 2 words. Military rank is a title, also consisting of 2 words, ie; Major General. There are no adjectives in a title.

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Typo alert... - "1 power OF attorney...."

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bringing it back to attorneys rather than military ranks... it is 1 power or attorney, and 2 powers of attorney (not 2 power of attorneys)

same principle.

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To add to AnWulf ... nor in the British army. AnWulf is quite right.
One way to see it is that a sergeant-major is a type or grade of sergeant, whereas lieutenant-general is a type of grade of general. The main nouns are sergeant and general respectively, so they take the plural, not the classifying word.

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@Brus ... not in the US Army. The adjective comes before noun ... brigadier general, major general, lieutenant general ... thus brigadier generals, major generals, lieutenant generals. General is the noun, not the adjective, in the military rank. Whereas in attorney general, it is the adjective.

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correction--should read "...with an adjective (general)."

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Actually, it's Majors General. It's the same as attorneys general. Both are pluralized nouns (attorneys/majors) with adjectives (major/general).

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BTW, most old military terms are French/Latin based. I wrote a blog on what we might have called the military and the armed forces had they come from Anglo-Saxon / Germanic roots.

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Definitely sergeants major ... http://www.sergeantsmajor.org/ That's the way I remember it from my Army days.

It's odd that sergeant major is the only one that is backwards ... It's major general! ... Major Generals.

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Sergeants major? Sergeant majors?

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@msades ... You're on the mark! This is a holdover from when French was the tongue of the Norman-French overlords and thus the tongue of the government, legal system, and military. The more English way to say it would be the general attorney ... The attorney that represents the general public ... and the plural would be the general attorneys. But as you pointed out, it's a holdover from French and the adjective follows the noun ... thus attorneys general.

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It's a compound noun where the second word is basically an adjective that describes the preceding noun, or "head." In this case, "general" describes "attorney."
Ah, the joy of head-first compound nouns.

A regular compound noun - "military funeral," for instance - has the head at the end. So we pluralize it as "military funerals," since we're counting funerals and not militaries. More than one "company car" is "company cars," "dog trainer" becomes "dog trainers" and so on. The thing we're counting is at the end. "Army general" is another example of this.

Some compound nouns are "head first" so they kind of look backwards and annoying. In your example, we're counting attorneys, not the concept of general-ness. Therefore, "attorneys general."

There are other examples of this: passers-by, courts-martial, sons-in-law are some of the more common head-first compound nouns, and they pluralize the same way. We're counting passers, courts, and sons, respectively.

If memory serves - and I could be wrong - we get this from French, which permits adjectives to come after the noun they describe more often than English does. That's why you see it pop up a lot in law and military language, where we borrowed heavily from French. If I'm wrong, though, I expect someone will let us know. *smile*

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