The Language Perfectionist: Unusual Plurals

Headline: “Thirteen state attorney generals threaten lawsuit over Nebraska’s health care deal.”

The phrase attorney generals isn’t wrong. But it’s not standard English. The approved form is attorneys general.

This is one of several compounds in which the adjective follows rather than precedes the noun, and where the plural is formed by adding -s to the noun, even though it comes first.

The phenomenon occurs only occasionally in English. Such expressions often strike the ear as archaic or foreign, but their use persists. Usage guru Bryan A. Garner lists two dozen others. Among them:

  • courts-martial
  • editors-in-chief
  • mothers-in-law
  • notaries public
  • rights-of-way

An adjective that follows a noun is called a postpositive adjective.Other examples in common use include heir apparent and battle royal. In these cases, too, the plural is formed via the “leading” noun: heirs apparent and battles royal.

Interestingly, attorney-generals is correct in British English. But here in the U.S., stick with attorneys general.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]