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Attorneys and Brigadiers

In response to:

The Cure for Corporate Wrongdoing: Class Actions vs. Individual Prosecutions from the November 19, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

I am ridiculously late in reading the NYR of November 19, 2015. In Judge Rakoff’s review of Professor John C. Coffee Jr.’s Entrepreneurial Litigation there are several references to the plural of “attorney general,” rendered there as “attorney generals.” I always have understood the plural to be “attorneys general.” Is this yet another of many instances in which the NYR knows something I do not know? Or is this (gasp!) an error in the NYR?

Florence Wagman Roisman
Rober H. McKinney School of Law
Indiana University
Indianapolis, Indiana

Jed S. Rakoff replies:

Sorry, Professor Roisman, there was no error. Your nice letter, however, gives me a chance to vent one of my pet peeves: against the use of the term “attorneys general” when the preferable plural is “attorney generals.” To be sure, Webster’s and most other dictionaries say either form is correct and do not express a preference. See, e.g., the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary, both available online. But although the term “attorney general,” in its first reported use in 1398, was a synonym for an attorney with a general practice (which might justify “attorneys general”—if you were living in the fourteenth century), the capitalized version has, in American parlance, always referred to the two-word title given to the government legal officer who has command of all the other government attorneys. No one would refer to two “brigadiers general,” so why say “attorneys general”? Or, in the words of James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine and now director of Harvard Law School’s Attorney General Clinic, “‘Attorneys general’ is stupid, silly, and not the way we talk in [everyday places].” I agree, although, in fairness, Tierney was previously director of Columbia Law School’s “Attorneys General Program”!