One of the first news stories a new producer wrote for me involved the plural form of attorney general. I smiled when I saw what he wrote.
When you see a dozen people who hold the title attorney general, you are looking at 12 attorneys general.
Some people wouldn’t know that. “Attorney generals” might seem correct.
That’s because when we make most two-word nouns plural, we add an S to the end of the last word. We wouldn’t say “coffees table” or “schools bus.” We’d say coffee tables and school buses.
So what gives with this attorneys general business? Why do we make the first word and not the second plural?
The first thing you must know is that the general in attorney general is not a noun. You’re not talking about a rank like a military general. In this case, it stands as an adjective.
Yes, this is an odd example of the adjective going after the noun instead of before.
Many of our legal terms came into the English language from French and Latin. The general in attorney general is a “postpositive adjective.” If you’ve never heard the term, don’t feel bad about it. I’d never heard of it, either.
The coffee in coffee table, on the other hand, is a prepositive adjective. That’s how most English adjectives work.
When you have a postpositive adjective — meaning the adjective follows the noun — you make the noun plural. So the S goes at the end of the first word.
It looks awkward. Until you get used to it, it feels awkward to write.
But attorneys general is the proper form. This also applies to surgeons general and postmasters general.
So now you know! And I hope you’ll never have a bunch of attorneys general coming after you! That may not end well!