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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

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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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*

mshades Oct-18-2011

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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.

AnWulf Oct-19-2011

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Sergeants major? Sergeant majors?

Micky B Oct-20-2011

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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.

AnWulf Oct-20-2011

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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.

AnWulf Oct-20-2011

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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).

Hairy Oct-24-2011

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

Hairy Oct-25-2011

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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.

AnWulf Oct-28-2011

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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.

Warsaw Will Nov-11-2011

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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.

Thredder Sep-04-2012

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

Thredder Sep-06-2012

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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.

Gerry Nelson Jul-02-2013

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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'

Jonathan Bingham Apr-25-2014

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@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

Warsaw Will Apr-25-2014

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So it's a bit like adding a comma: Attorneys, General.

With the class first and the subclass second, as in:

Meals, Ready to Eat

Greg Robert Aug-09-2014

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So it's a bit like adding a comma: Attorneys, General.

With the class first and the subclass second, as in:

Meals, Ready to Eat

Greg Robert Aug-09-2014

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@Hairy - I've only just seen your comment, and sorry, only three years late, but I have to disagree - It's major generals, not majors general, and general is a noun here, it's not an adjective - if anything it's major that is (a noun) acting as an adjective. Like a lieutenant general or a brigadier general, a major general is a class of general, so it's general that takes the plural.

"The four will be commissioned as Army major generals for an approximate two-year term while serving intermittently in this role." - Oxford Online

"Cromwell's Major-Generals: Godly Government During the English Revolution" - Christopher Durston

On the other hand, an attorney general is a grade of attorney, just as an adjutant general is a grade of adjutant. In these cases 'general' is indeed an adjective. So here it's the first word that takes the plural:

"These guidelines explain the general enforcement policy of the state and territorial attorneys general who comprise the National Association of Attorneys General. " - State antitrust practice and statutes

"that all the other adjutants general shall have the brevet" - US Congress 1839

It's easiest to see when you compare a major general and a sergeant major. The first is a kind of general (not a kind of major) and so it's general that is pluralised. The latter is a type of sergeant (also not a kind of major), so it's sergeant that takes the plural s. Major generals, but sergeants major.

"Uncommon Men: The Sergeants Major of the Marine Corps" - John C. Chapin - 2007
"United States Army Sergeants Major Academy, Fort Bliss, Texas"

Warsaw Will Aug-09-2014

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mshades explains the history.

However - right now 'attorney general' is a noun in and of itself. Therefore attorney generals is fine - and we don't need permission to use it - we can just use it.

Nick D Mar-08-2015

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@Nick D

Of course you can use it.
However the unfortunate fact is that common usage does not always mean correct usage.


user106928 Mar-08-2015

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But, HS, one or two people saying something doesn't make it common usage. Common usage is what is generally used and/or accepted by educated speakers and writers of a given language community, not 'anything goes'. This expression is used in the plural mainly in the States, and if you check the New York Times, for example, the entries are nearly all for "attorneys general" - that *is* the common usage.

Here there is a certain logic to it, but there are other language contexts where it is only common usage that makes something 'correct' , especially in vocabulary. It is because of common usage, not any written grammar rule, that most of us don't say 'thou art' any more, or that English moved away from inflected endings to the use of auxiliaries, and all the other changes that happened in English before any grammarian put pen to paper.

And what did the first grammarians use a basis for their rules - the observation of common usage.

And on the subject of compound nouns, is there any rule for deciding whether they spelt as two words, hyphenated, or joined together? None that I know of, except common usage.

As for Nick D's idea - passer-by, and brother-in-law are also nouns in their own right - but passer-bys and brother-in-laws certainly don't sound OK to me. Why? Because it's neither common usage, nor is it logical, as mshades explains (he explains a lot more than the history). Same difference with attorneys general - they are general attorneys, not some kind of general.

And what about expressions such as spoonful, cupful, bucketful and truckful. Logically you might think it should be spoonsful etc, as this commenter on a forum suggested, "The grammatically correct answer is "spoonsful", those who say otherwise are mistaken. However, those who say otherwise also have custom and usage on their side, and "spoonfuls" is perfectly acceptable. "

Some people think 'spoonfuls' is recent, but I'm not so sure. According to Ngram, that has always been the case, although 'spoonsful' got close in the first half of the 19th century. And according to another grammar book, this time from 1830, "The words spoonful, mouthful, and others of a like kind, are indivisible compound nouns, therefore must form their plural regularly", a point echoed in several books of that time. And why are they 'indivisible'? I would suggest through common usage.

So, what many people seem to think is the 'grammatically correct' version has in fact been dismissed in many grammar books. Which simply confirms me in my belief that there is only one unbiased, objective way of deciding whether to use one form or another, and that's common usage. And to be very wary when someone says 'the grammatically correct answer is ***'!

Warsaw Will Mar-09-2015

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See my comments in the thread on was/were.


user106928 Mar-09-2015

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Isn't "General" a rank rather than an adjective. The AG is the top ranking government attorney and not some general purpose "JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES" . Are we really supposed to say Postmasters General, etc.?

jdjay Sep-28-2016

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When we say “general” in “attorney general,” “surgeon general,” and “postmater general,” it is not meant as a rank as in the military sense, and it is not even a noun. It is an adjective meaning “chief or principal.” It is the same sense as in “general manger.” The confusion comes from the adjective following the noun.

Johnny English Nov-10-2018

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Attorney General would be better understood if the adjective "general" occupied the common placement for English adjectives, i.e. General Attorney. where general means "overall. overseeing, supervising" attorney. If you have no trouble understanding "Snow White" or "matters pending" then Attorney General, an historic term. should be recognized for what it is. And you don't address an AG as "General".

user109117 Aug-16-2020

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