Submitted by Greg Allen on 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?


Sort by

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*

6 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

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.

3 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

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.

2 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

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

2 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

@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.

1 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

@Jonahan Bingham - definitely two Books of Mormon. It's the book you've got two of, not Mormons. From various books at Google Books:

"We were there an hour and a half signing autographs and giving out Books of Mormon."
"As I mentioned, I was carrying several Books of Mormon around with me"
"The following year, all the Books of Mormon had been given out."

Most references to "Book of Mormons" are to one, but admittedly there are these two:

"Along with our scriptures and regular teaching materials was an unusually large amount of Book of Mormons. We each had five."

"'Ive got mountains of Book of Mormons, I've read it so many times that I can quote half the book, I know the story better than they do, I've read it more times than they have, and yet, still they persist in bringing me more Book of Mormons "

But they don't exactly come from the highest of literature.

Similar story for "The Book of Common Prayer". From the Christian Observer:

"In the course of the year, the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge has distributed to its members and the public 54,896 Bibles, 75,547 Testaments and Psalters, 146,668 Books of Common Prayer"

"hath caused the books of Common Prayer to be newly printed," - William Cobbett

1 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Definitely sergeants major ... 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.

1 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

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

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

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.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

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

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

OK, so titles of books then with the word 'book' in them, i.e. "Book of Mormon." The book itself is a compilation of books of scripture, including its own Book of Mormon as one of those books. So would it be 'Two Books of Mormon' or '2 Book of Mormons'? I avoid the fight altogether by saying 2 copies of the Book of Mormon, but I favor 'Book of Mormons'

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

@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.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Sergeants major? Sergeant majors?

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

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.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Your Comment