- An attorney general is NOT a general.
- An attorney general is an attorney.
- The general part is an adjective that describes what kind of attorney she is. One that handles all general law issues.
- Calling an attorney general "general" makes no sense at all.
- The plural of attorney general is 'attorneys general.'
This all started when I checked that I was spelling attorneys general correctly.
I got a NY Times blog post that was campaigning to change the official plural from 'attorneys general' to 'attorney generals.'
Whoa, I thought, we're say attorneys general because we're talking about attorneys we're not talking about generals.
So I dug a little further. "General" in attorney general doesn't mean a top ranking military guy. It isn't even a noun. It's an adjective. It means 'not specific.' It's an attorney who does general law rather than specializing in a particular area.
In this case the adjective comes AFTER the noun because it's borrowed from a Romance language where adjectives normally come after the noun.
The Grammarist gives a good explanation of this plus other examples:
Postpositive adjectives are adjectives that follow the nouns they modify. Such constructions evince the influence that Romance languages, especially French, have had and still have on English. French, Spanish, and Italian all use postpositive adjectives as a rule.
In general, postpositive adjectives sound unnatural in English, but there are a few set phrases that conventionally comprise modifiers following nouns—for example:
- accounts payable
- attorney general
- body politic
- court martial
- God almighty
- heir apparent
- notary public
- poet laureate
- postmaster general
- time immemorial
- words unspoken
. . . To pluralize phrases that conventionally use postpositive adjectives, we usually make the noun plural—for example, poets laureate, attorneys general, courts martial—but some writers treat such phrases as compound nouns and put the s at the end."
early 14c. (mid-13c. in Anglo-Latin), from Old French atorné "(one) appointed," past participle of aturner "to decree, assign, appoint," from atorner (see attorn). The legal Latin form attornare influenced the spelling in Anglo-French. The sense is of "one appointed to represent another's interests."
In English law, a private attorney was one appointed to act for another in business or legal affairs (usually for pay); an attorney at law or public attorney was a qualified legal agent in the courts of Common Law who prepared the cases for a barrister, who pleaded them (the equivalent of a solicitor in Chancery). So much a term of contempt in England that it was abolished by the Judicature Act of 1873 and merged with solicitor.
Johnson observed that "he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney." [Boswell]The double -t- is a mistaken 15c. attempt to restore a non-existent Latin original. Attorney general first recorded 1530s in sense of "legal officer of the state" (late 13c. in Anglo-French), from French, hence the odd plural (subject first, adjective second).
My browsing on this led to the issue of people addressing the attorney general as "General." Whoa again. I'd looked this up when Committee Chair Jay Ramras addressed Acting Attorney General Dan Sullivan as "General." The Virginia State protocol manual - a state with a strong military tradition - said you call an attorney general "Mr." Grammarphobia gives probably the ultimate answer to this. It even talks about people Supreme Court Justice Kagan, insisting, when she was solicitor general, that people call her general! But that turned out to be an equal rights thing. If solicitors general who were men were called 'general' than she insisted that she be treated the same way. It's also the source of the "Stickler" quote in the title of this post.
The ultimate essay on this topic that they all refer to seems to be this one by Michael Herz.
But does it even matter? Language changes every day. Who cares? People today, one might argue, don't even know what a noun and an adjective are.
A cynical response to that would be: that's why Fox News has a loyal following.
There are a number of reasons it matters.
- It's wrong grammatically and it's wrong in meaning. We don't make adjectives plural. And here 'general' means 'wide ranging, not specific.' It doesn't mean the top rank in the army here. Changing the meanings of words to suit the ignorant and lazy is what Fox News does. I say we should educate them and show them the benefits of working a little harder.
- English has a rich heritage and has many complexities. It's like a modern computer program that is packed with possibilities that most people will never use. English has words and grammatical functions that, for people who have mastered them, can allow one to say things precisely enough to communicate accurately with someone who also has mastered them. The grammar can help reinforce the meaning of a sentence. Just like the many hidden functions of a computer program add complexity, they also give people the ability to do more sophisticated things.
- Good communication among human beings is critical to better understanding and less fighting and more cooperation. We have a remarkably rich language. The words and grammar are tools to help us think and help us convey those thoughts to others. Adding new words as we develop new concepts is great. Modifying old words so they make sense today is also great. Such things add complexity and more tools to think and communicate well. But changing the general in attorney general from an adjective to a noun changes the whole meaning of the word.
- Along those lines, the Michael Herz essay raises the concern that changing an attorney general from an attorney to general moves us subtly from a nation that reveres the rule of law to one that is ruled by military.
- Attorney general, as the Grammarist citation above points out, is an unusual construction in English. It's because the term is borrowed from a Romance language. Having words that are different from the norm help remind us that the norm isn't the only way. And leaving borrowed words a little odd, help remind us of their heritage and our long standing relationships with other cultures. English owes a lot to German, to French, to Latin, and many other languages. And it's good to be reminded that 'pure' English isn't pure.
Does this really matter in the big picture of the universe? Not really. But it matters as much or more than knowing the name of some celebritie's last three husbands or the lyrics of the number ten hit song this week. Or how many strike outs a baseball player had. The words of our language help us communicate with each other - they are the tools of peace and harmony. Not knowing them and how to use them lowers our chance of good communication. Moving the 'S' from attorney to general totally changes the term, what it means, and to a much smaller degree changes who we are.