Why is it “Attorneys General” (plural) but not “Attorney’s General” (singular possessive)?

February 18th, 2013

With “Attorney General,” general modifies the noun attorney. Thus, when there is more than one Attorney General, you would write “Attorneys General.” This makes sense. You make the noun plural by adding an “s” to it.

The WSJ Law Blog wrote a post about this some years ago.

Researching the term’s history, our crack staff came across this article by Michael Herz, a professor at Cardozo Law School. Historically, “general” refers not to rank or command but to the breadth of their practice. The first known use of the term “attorney general” occurred in England in 1398 in a certificate from the Duke of Norfolk’s four attorneys general. These lawyers were known at first as general attorneys, and later came to be known as attorneys general. Hence, the awkward phrasing.

This is also why referring to the Attorney General or the Solicitor General as simply “General” is wrong and undeserved, with all respect to the Attorney General and Solicitor General. The only General at the Supreme Court is General Suter.

But why does it get messed up when you make it possessive. Say, for example, you wanted to refer to a brief the Attorney General filed.

I would think it is correct to write “the Attorney’s General brief.” But that sounds off. I would write “the Attorney’s General’s brief.”

But why would you make the adjective possessive?

A quick Westlaw search of AllFeds confirms this. I found only 224 hits for “Attorney’s General” and 10,000+ hits for “Attorney General’s.”

In the Supreme Court database I found 2 hits for “Attorney’s General.” One from a 1982 O’Connor opinion in Landon v. Plasencia that I am pretty sure is a typo:

Voluntary departure for an alien who would otherwise be deported also means that he will not be subject to s 212(a)(17), 8 U.S.C. s 1182(a)(17), which at the time of Plasencia’s hearing, required aliens who had once been deported to seek prior approval of the Attorney’s General before re-entering

The other is from Justice McLean’s dissenting opinion Ex Parte Wells (1855). I also think this is a typo.

Nor have either of the laws been referred to by any one of the attorney’s general who have been consulted on the subject, and who have given elaborate opinions, and particularly Mr. Wirt, who dwells upon the difficulty, if not impracticability, of carrying out the condition on which the pardon was granted, without specific legislation

So what gives.

Why is it Attorneys General but not Attorney’s General? Or Solicitors General but not Solicitor’s General?

I usually avoid this problem by writing AG’s or SG’s, but that can’t be right.

I guess that we have treated the word General as a noun for purposes of the possessive, as we treat it as a noun for addressing the office-holder as General. So why must we treat the word General as an adjective only for purposes of pluralization!?