Is an Attorney General Addressed as ‘General’?
‘General’ is a military rank and honorific of a person holding the rank of general. Why do some journalists (print and broadcast) address the attorney general (US or of a state) as ‘General?’ Isn’t this grammatically incorrect because in the title ‘Attorney General’, the word ‘general’ is an adjective modifying/limiting the noun ‘attorney’?
_______– R. F.
Dear R. F.:
An attorney general is an attorney with general duties as opposed to an attorney with some limited scope of duties. The title has the same structure as inspector general, solicitor general, postmaster general, auditor general, consul general and surgeon general.
Court documents confirm an attorney general and solicitor general are addressed and referred to as ‘General (Surname)’ in courtroom settings. Federal and state supreme and appellate court proceedings refer to attorneys general as ‘General (Surname)’.
A law librarian at the Library of Congress did some research on this at my request and confirms in oral arguments, court documents record the Attorney General and Solicitor General as ‘Gen. (Full Name), Esq.’
When contacting state attorneys general to find their practice, I quote the Executive Assistant of the Attorney General of Montana: ‘Your e-mail asks a number of questions regarding the preferred form of address for the current Montana Attorney General. ‘Dear Mr. Bullock’ is the accepted form of address for the current attorney general, in any situation. ‘General’ is rarely used, and then by those who are not aware of our customary practice.’
To me it seems addressing an attorney general as ‘General (Name)’ is an internal practice within the legal profession. It makes sense in the context of a courtroom to identify the role of an attorney general in a way to separate him from others addressed ‘Mr.’. But outside the courtroom when (as happens in DC pretty often) there are Army, Marine Corp, and Air Force Generals in the room – addressing an attorney general as ‘General (Name)’ make no sense.
Further among the range of offices with ‘general duties’ … solicitor general, surgeon general, inspector general …. None are ever addressed as ‘General (Name)’
Lastly, the plural of attorney general in the dictionary is not ‘attorney generals’ but is ‘attorneys general’ … emphasizing the office is an ‘attorney’, and ‘general’ is an adjective describing the attorney with a broad range of duties for the state. Thus, there is no way they would be generals.
– Robert Hickey