Attorneys general, not attorney generals

Lynne Kiesling

All of this Eric Holder gossip today unfortunately creates an opportunity for me to pick a grammatical nit: the plural of “attorney general” is “attorneys general”, not “attorney generals”. The “general” in “attorney general” is an adjective that modifies the noun “attorney”. The plural attaches to the noun, not the adjective.

Bet you didn’t know that I was such a grammar weenie … unless you’re the KP Spouse, my friend Amy, or my long-suffering students whose writing I grade!

On a more substantive note, Eric Holder as Attorney General bodes poorly for both civil rights and a more reasonable legal approach to drug policy. This Reason post and its links make that argument from a libertarian perspective, as well as from John Nichols at The Nation.


4 thoughts on “Attorneys general, not attorney generals

  1. As Steven Pinker is fond of pointing out, it simply depends on whether we parse the phrase as a noun-phrase with a definite head (“attorney” in this case), or if the phrase has been linguistically congealed into a compound word that merely looks like a noun phrase. Neither or right or wrong, since it’s very possible for different people to parse (as in mentally compute) the phrase in different ways.

  2. As Steven Pinker is fond of pointing out, it simply depends on whether we parse the phrase as a noun-phrase with a definite head (“attorney” in this case), or if the phrase has been linguistically congealed into a compound word that merely looks like a noun phrase. Neither or right or wrong, since it’s very possible for different people to parse (as in mentally compute) the phrase in different ways.

  3. Oh, what fun! The Onion headline is wonderful!

    OK, Lynne, so what’s your position on a/n in “an historical ____”?

    I’ve seen one rational defense of it, but it is spreading rapidly, defaulting to a “new rule” that n always goes before h, simply because (I conjecture, without support) people are concluding that it must be an existing rule they never knew. I recently heard a local-news announcer describe “an high-speed chase.” Yech!

    For me it’s all a matter of sound and practicality in pronunciation. I would prefer “an RSS feed” to “a RSS feed” because of the beginning sound of RSS as you pronounce the acronym, not because RSS begins with a consonant. It’s avoiding a difficult glottal stop. This is consistent with other languages as well, notoriously French, except that in French the consonants are always present in writing, but are dropped in pronunciation if they’re not needed to separate words conveniently. In “les voitures” you don’t need to pronounce the s in “les,” but you do in “les enfants.”

    The rational defense of “an historical” is that pronunciation of a hard h English is declining, especially in words such “historical,” that emphasize the second syllable. By that logic, you have “a history” and “an historical,” but it still seems to me to be justified only on the beginning sound and not on the beginning consonant. Fine, but that really doesn’t settle the issue of what should be used in writing, nor whether its use in speaking should be dependent on how the speaker pronounces consonants.

    “An high-speed chase” is just an abomination for anybody but a Cockney, from whom I’d expect to hear it, and it would sound appropriate. (Try to imagine a Cockney speaker rapidly saying “a high-speed chase” and you’ll hear the extra glottal stop.) On a from-nowhere news announcer in the U.S. it sounds ridiculous, sort of like “two Whoppers Junior,” i.e., going so far out of the way to be correct that it becomes incorrect.

    But if that’s the case, then “an historical” is every bit as connected with pronunciation by the speaker. That is, if you’re going to pronounce the h, then “a historical” does not require an extra glottal stop and is perfectly valid pronunciation if not spelling. That’s why I find “an historical,” with the h clearly pronounced, to be grating. And it’s spreading…

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