The Grammarphobia Blog

General relativity

Q: The word “general” in the title “solicitor general” is an adjective, not a noun. So are the Supreme Court justices using incorrect English when they address the solicitor general as “general”? What do you guys think?

A: When an attorney general, a solicitor general, a surgeon general, an inspector general, a comptroller general, and a postmaster general sit down together, there isn’t a general among them.

The gathering consists of an attorney, a solicitor, a surgeon, an inspector, a comptroller, and a postmaster. In their titles, the adjective “general” isn’t used in the military sense.

In conversation, according to protocol guides, these officials should be addressed by name, as “Mr. Smith” (or “Ms.” or “Mrs.” or “Dr.,” etc.), or as Mr. Solicitor General, Madam Attorney General, and so on—but not as “General.”

Yet many people insist on calling them generals—especially the attorneys general and solicitors general. This used to annoy Janet Reno no end. The former attorney general preferred to be addressed as “Ms. Reno.”

But Elena Kagan, when she was solicitor general, wanted to be called “general.” In a posting a couple of years ago, we quoted her as saying “the justices have been calling men SGs ‘general’ for years and years and years; the first woman SG should be called the same thing.”

So are justices on the Supreme Court using poor English when they address the solicitor general (or attorney general) as “general”? Technically, perhaps. But the justices have the authority to rule on proper usage in their own courtroom.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, says the justices’ use of “general as a faux title appears to have been popularized by William Rehnquist, who was otherwise known as a stickler for grammar.”

Garner says Rehnquist used the term this way as early as 1980, during oral arguments in Fedorenko v. US, a case in which the court held that people who assisted in Nazi persecutions were not eligible for US visas.

While Justice Rehnquist was addressing the solicitor general as “general,” Garner says, “the Chief Justice in that era, Warren Burger, fastidiously addressed the Solicitor General as ‘Mr. Solicitor General.’ ”

When Rehnquist became chief justice, according to Garner, he continued to use “general” as a title, “undoubtedly helping to spread this linguistic innovation.”

“Lamentably,” Garner writes, “the practice has continued with Rehnquist’s successor and has been adopted by other members of the Court as well.”

He notes that even the court’s official “transcript references to the Solicitor General now simply state ‘General Clement,’ ‘General Kneedler,’ and ‘General Kagan.’ ” (Not surprisingly, Justice Kagan now refers to the Solicitor General as “general.”)

As for the future, Garner says: “Sticklers will abstain. Others will blithely persist. And the militarization of high legal offices will march forward.”

He isn’t alone in lamenting this usage. Michael E. Herz, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law-Yeshiva University, has written a paper arguing that addressing a solicitor general or an attorney general as “general” is “flatly incorrect by the standards of history, grammar, lexicology and protocol.”

“Notwithstanding the popularity of ‘come here, gorgeous,’ it is grammatically incorrect to call someone by an adjective,” Herz says.

He adds that “historically, ‘general’ refers not to rank or command but to the breadth of attorneyship.” (The Oxford English Dictionary says that “general” in the title of an office holder means “having superior rank and comprehensive command or control.”)

“According to the standard text on protocol,” Herz writes, “a letter should begin ‘Dear Mr. Solicitor General’ or ‘Dear Mr. Doe,’ and in conversation the SG should be referred to simply as ‘Mr. Doe.’ ”

(The “standard text” he refers to is Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage, by Mary Jane McCaffree and Pauline Innis.)

Interestingly, as we note in our earlier Kagan posting, the word “general” was once the less important part of the military title, according to the language sleuth Dave Wilton.

The first general officer, he writes on his website, Wordorigins.org, was a “capteyn generall, an officer who had authority over the other captains, or commanders, in an army; in other words, the commander-in-chief.”

“This term dates to 1514 and is a lift from the French, who used the rank captain général,” Wilton says. “By 1576, the captain was being dropped from the title and superior officers were simply being addressed as general.”

In that earlier posting we also quoted the linguist Mark Liberman as suggesting that addressing an attorney general as “general” may have been “common practice at the state level, in some parts of the U.S., for a long time.”

Writing on the Language Log, Liberman notes that the judge in the Scopes trial in 1925 addressed the Tennessee attorney general as “general”—and out of courtesy addressed the other lawyers as “colonel.”

Many centuries ago, the title wasn’t “attorney general” but “general attorney.” So where did the “general” come from?

As the OED explains, “The designation began in England, where this officer was at first merely the king’s attorney … called from the reign of Edward IV, ‘the king’s general attorney,’ to distinguish him from those appointed to act on special occasions, or in particular courts. The descriptive designation seems to have grown into a title during the 16th c.”

These days, in both England and the US, “attorney general” is “the title of the first ministerial law-officer of the government,” the OED says.

In case you’re interested, we’ve also written on the blog about the use of honorifics (like “Mr.”) in titles and forms of address, including postings in 2008 and 2012.

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