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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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.