April 22, 2007

Cavett's comforting cavils

Dick Cavett titled his NYT quasi-blog piece for April 19 "Too Much News". Overwhelmed by the events of the week ("I am up to my ankles in bunches of scribbled notes, supposedly for today’s column (some legible) from watching endless, endless hours of television and hopelessly loading (and failing to label) cassettes. I’m defeated by it."), he sought consolation in grammatical pecksniffery:

Could someone please inform our lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee that Attorney General Gonzales is not a general? Was it sixth or was it seventh grade when we all learned that “general” is the adjective? He is a general attorney, Senator Grassley (even the inspector general has no stars on his shoulders), and every time you call him “General Gonzales” you embarrass your home state of Iowa. And all of us.

You might also remind your colleagues that, as with “films noir,” the plural is “attorneys general.” Thanks.

According to Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, the plural of attorney general depends on geography:

attorney general, made plural, forms attorneys general in AmE, attorney-generals in BrE.

In his section on plurals, Garner explains the theory further:

Plurals of compound nouns made up of a noun and a POSTPOSITIVE ADJECTIVE are formed by adding -s to the noun: courts martial, heirs presumptive. The British and Americans differ on the method of pluralizing attorney general, q.v. Those words in which the noun is now disguised add -s at the end of the word, as with all compounds ending in -ful: lungfuls, spoonfuls, handfuls.

This helps us to understand Cavett's apparently gratuitous "films noir" remark. The form that he recommends would clearly be a mistake in French, where adjectives usually follow nouns, and both adjective and noun get plural inflection. Several of his commenters pick this up, starting with #6:

What style book are you using when you say the plural of “film noir” is “films noir”? In French, the correct plural is “films noirs,” and indeed that’s the plural I’ve always seen in English film criticism.

This is a phenomenally petty point to raise when, as you say, the week’s news is so troubling, but perhaps taking refuge in linguistic niceties is a means of coping with the enormities of life.

However, web search (153,000 for {"films noirs"} vs. 47,200 for {"films noir"}) suggests that Cavett is not the only one who has apparently adapted this French phrase to the English pattern of pluralizing only the head non in a NOUN+ADJECTIVE structure, as in heirs presumptive.

But it's odd to present a distinctly non-standard anglicization of the plural of "film noir", a recent borrowing from French, as if it were the only correct usage. And it's even odder to use this to justify rejecting the British plural of "attorney general", as if it were simply an ignorant error.

What about Cavett's first complaint, about addressing Mr. Gonzales as "general"? Several of Cavett's commenters call this cavil into question as well:

#2: “General Gonzales” is often used in official Washington as an honorific for Attorneys General, Solicitors General, Inspectors General, etc. The Supreme Court justices often refer, during oral arguments, to General So-and-So (whoever happens to be the Solicitor General at the time). If Mr. Cavett watched (or, as I was, a part of) more C-Span coverage, he wouldn’t be so taken back by the usage.

#38: As someone who was told long ago to address the Attorney General of my state as General So-and-So, I really cannot be certain whether that usage is correct. However, as a veteran French teacher, I am quite certain that the plural of “film noir” is “films noirs.”

#40: You are wrong about the correct mode of address for an Attorney General. The senators who addressed him as General Gonzalez were using the proper title. State attorneys general are also properly addressed as “General.” This may strike you as ungrammatical, but it is justified by a long tradition of usage. Calling a judge “Your Honor” (in a trial court) is pretty weird grammatically, too, but also justified by usage.

The current Solicitor General is Paul D. Clement, and at the Supreme Court, he is indeed commonly addressed as "General Clement", as this search of oral arguments indicates.

Dave Wilton discussed the form of address for attorneys general last year on wordorigins.org ("General Knowledge", 3/31/2006), asserting that "[t]he addressing of the attorney general as "general" is relatively recent, only becoming a practice when Janet Reno held the position from 1993-2001, during the Clinton administration".

However, the transcript of the Scopes trial makes it clear that a judge in Tennessee in 1925 addressed his state's attorney general routinely as "General Stewart" (and, curiously, addressed the other lawyers by courtesy as "Colonel"). Without looking into it further, it seems to me that usage of the title "General" for attorneys general may have been common practice at the state level, in some parts of the U.S., for a long time. In any case, Cavett can feel embarrassment for Senator Grassley if he wants to, but it's not clear at all that Senator Grassley needs to feel ashamed for this usage on his own behalf.

In all three instances of incorrection, we can be sure that Mr. Cavett didn't bother to check the facts -- which underlines the true nature of this particular variety of intervention. It's not about the facts of contemporary usage, even among the best writers and speakers. Nor is it about the history of the language and the protection of tradition. Instead, it's a pure expression of ego, asserting the right to be one of those who separate the linguistic sheep from the goats.

Still, we should be grateful that so many people can soothe themselves by complaining, even ignorantly, about the ignorance of others. And their preferred method of solace is one of several forces creating the large market for popularizations of grammatical knowledge and analysis, now almost empty of competent suppliers.

[Update -- Steven Tripp reminds us that the military rank of "general" also began as an adjective, not only in the phrase "general officer" that is still in use, but also (and earlier) as a modifier of captain in the form of what Garner called a "postpositive adjective". The OED:

Captain General, captain-general: Chief commander of a force: commander-in-chief of an army (obs. in Eng. use). Also the governor of a Spanish province or colony.

1514 Summ. Terouane in Rel. Ant. I. 317 The Lord Pont Deremy, capeteyn generall.
1606 SHAKES. Tr. & Cr. II. iii. 279 Honour'd Captaine Generall of the Grecian Armie, Agamemnon.
1708 Proclam. 30 Dec. in Lond. Gaz. No. 4503/1 John Duke of Marlborough, Captain General of our Forces.

The prepositive use dates from more than 60 years later:

General: 9. a. Mil. Prefixed to the designation of an officer to indicate superior rank and extended command. general officer, one above the rank of colonel.

1576 J. SANDFORD Gard. Pleas. 164 When Paulus Aemilius was generall Capytayne in Greece for the Romans.
1601 HOLLAND Pliny II. 483 Fabricius..forbad expressly, that any warriours and Generall captains should haue in plate more than one drinking boll or goblet, and a saltsellar.
1626 in Rushw. Hist. Coll. (1659) I. 303 General-Governor of the Seas and Ships of the said Kingdom.
1681 NEVILE Plato Rediv. 259 Chancellor, Judges, General Officers of an Army, and the like.

The use of General as a military title prefixed to a name is much more recent, though the on-line version of the OED gives (as far as I can see on a quick read) no citations at all for this, simply referring to it as "[i]n mod. use":

7. a. Mil. A general officer (see A9); originally, the commander of the whole army, subsequently applied also to commanders of divisions. In mod. use, designating an officer as holding definite military rank, in which application it is also used as a title prefixed to the name (often written Gen.).

So the process leading to an "attorney general" or a "solicitor general" being called "general" is exactly the same, from a grammatical point of view, as the process that led to the more familiar military title. Neither development may have been strictly logical,

...quid autem
Caecilio Plautoque dabit Romanus ademptum
Vergilio Varioque?

... But why
should the Romans grant to Plautus and Caecilius a privilege denied
to Virgil and Varius?

Or, for that matter, to Grassley? (If the interpretation is not obvious, look here.)]

[Uh oh -- fact alert! Stephen Jones writes:

On web searches for .uk domains. A lot of the latter may well be possessives since Google doesn't distinguish between "attorney generals" and "attorney general's".

At the BYU the score is 1:0 in favour of attorneys general.

So I don't think you can say the form "attorneys general" is the favoured British form.

Could Bryan Garner be, um, wrong? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 22, 2007 09:06 AM