The English language can cause a lot of confusion at times. A great example comes when you’re trying to choose between marshal or marshall.
Do you know when to choose marshal or marshall? I thought I did, but a little research indicates it isn’t as cut and dried as I thought it was.
From time to time, I have to write crime-related stories that involve certain federal agents getting involved in arrests of fugitives. I also occasionally write about fires in which high-ranking fire department investigators are called in.
I was fairly confident I knew when to choose marshal or marshall in both instances. But sometimes, even when you reach a point of being certain about something in the English language, you realize it isn’t certain at all.
What I thought was correct
I have never been a fan of westerns. By the time I was born, the western, which had been a staple on television, was dying off. The two biggest western TV shows when I was a kid were Bonanza and Gunsmoke. The former enjoyed a 14-year run, ending in 1973, when I was just three years old. Gunsmoke, on the other hand, held a record for a long time as the longest-running scripted prime-time series, ending after 20 years in 1975.
The latter told the story of Marshal Matt Dillon, who was based out of Dodge City, Kansas. Some people might remember that reruns of the show that were produced between 1955 and 1961 as half-hour shows were syndicated under the alternate title Marshal Dillon.
At the same time, I’ve never been a big Jim Carrey fan, either. His brand of comedy reaches far into the “too silly” category for my tastes. He’s a talented guy; I wouldn’t deny that for a second. But his comedy just doesn’t do it for me. One of his earliest successes on the show In Living Color was a character named “Fire Marshall Bill.”
So I took it for granted that the federal agents with the U.S. Marshals Service were known as marshals — with one L. I likewise took it for granted that the fire investigators who determine the cause of fires and who work to educate the community about fire prevention are marshalls with two Ls.
It turns out that’s largely not the case.
Our friends at Merriam-Webster set the record straight about the word marshal in their definition. They say — and they should know, after all — that this type of marshal has three primary definitions:
- An officer appointed for a judicial district (as of the U.S.) to execute the process of the courts and perform various duties similar to those of a sheriff
- A city law officer entrusted with particular duties
- The administrative head of a city police department or fire department
There are other definitions for marshal, so click the link above to see them.
Notice the part about the “administrative head of a city police department or fire department”? That would mean that Carrey’s character should be “Fire Marshal Bill.” It turns out that if you Google the character, you’ll find both spellings.
So the one-L version is correct for either application, right? Right.
Well, not necessarily.
While the U.S. Marshals Service makes it clear that they use the single-L version of the word, you won’t find that same consistency among fire departments.
That seems to be where the confusion comes from.
I know I’ve written stories about “fire marshalls” in South Carolina. (As I typed that, the spellcheck function drew a red line under marshall. But I’ve seen emails from official sources that list “fire marshall” — the two-L version. Just last week, one of the local county coroner’s offices issued a press release about a fatal fire. It listed the “SC Fire Marshall” as one of five agencies investigating it.
Marshall, of course, is a proper name. Peter Marshall hosted the popular Hollywood Squares for nearly15 years on NBC. Thurgood Marshall was the first Black Supreme Court Justice. It can even be a first name; I have a friend and former colleague with that first name.
You’ll also find Marshall University in West Virginia and the Marshall Islands between Hawaii and the Philippines.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of marshal lists marshall as an alternate spelling.
My home state of South Carolina has the Office of the State Fire Marshal. So the coroner’s news release simply featured a misspelling.
However, some municipalities do spell it the alternate way. Washington, D.C. has a fire marshall. A quick Google search found fire marshalls in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.
You can even see the confusion in my state’s Code of Laws! Under Title 23, “Law Enforcement and Public Safety,” you can check out Title 9, which focuses on the Fire Marshal. But while almost every mention uses Marshal, you’ll find this under Section 23-9-35:
The Division of State Fire Marshall is authorized to construct and place handicapped ramps without incurring fees or securing a permit for the construction and placement of handicapped ramps.
There are 108 instances of marshal in Title 23. But that single instance of marshall perfectly illustrates how easy it is to mix that up.
The Associated Press Stylebook, which many journalists rely on to set a common style, prefers martial.
But in cases like this, you should spell the word the way the official title does. This means you may have to check with your area’s office if you’re choosing between marshal or marshall.
Even when there’s a clear definition, there’s not always clear consistency! Good luck!