ATTORNEYS GENERAL: the case of the disputed “s”

attorneys generalI was listening to an interview on NPR this morning which caught my attention.  It was as if someone had scratched their fingernails on a chalkboard. (For those of you who are too young to remember, chalk boards were what teachers used in the classroom before whiteboards and computer screens were invented.   The sounds sends chills up your spine.)

The interviewer was questioning  Eric Lipton, whose article about the funds going to attorneys general from various sources appeared in the New York Times this past week.   I must admit that I didn’t pay a significant amount of time listening to the interview in terms of its content.

Rather, I was caught by the fact that Lipton continually referred to attorney generals, placing the plural “s” on the word general rather than on attorney.   It has always been my understanding that the “s” belongs on the word attorney, which is the primary word, being defined by the word general. It’s not the most important issue in our world today, but it seemed unusual that a journalist would “make that error.”   I decided to look into it further.

First of all, what is an attorney general?

In the United States, the office of the attorney general acts as the chief legal officer for the state or territory, and one attorney general acts on behalf of the federal government. An attorney general advises his (sic) government’s top executive and represents the government in civil and criminal legal matters.” *
That covers the first step, the definition of the position.  Then comes the difficult part.  How do you make the term attorney General into a plural?  For this I went to Bryan Garner, who I consider to be my #1 expert on the American English language.  He says:

In American English, attorneys general is the correct plural form. The British prefer attorney-generals (the Brits have long hyphenated the phrase).

Generally, a compound noun made up of a noun and a postpositive adjective (one that follows its noun) is pluralized by adding -s to the noun, as with heirs apparent and causes of action.” *

In this case, “attorney” is the noun and “general” is the adjective.

That being said, I have to admit that when I went to the dictionaries I found that most of them tell us right up front that there are two ways to make the plural and that both are acceptable.  I don’t know if that’s a knee-bend to the British, or if they are just reflecting the common misunderstanding of the American populace.

My expectation is that the plural is expressed by putting the “s” on the word attorney.   And, it would be my expectation that journalists would follow this standard.  However, as with much in the American English language, my expectations have nothing to do with practices.


 Photo Credit: Yuma
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