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26 Unusual Plurals That Work Like "Attorneys General"

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The usual way to modify a noun in English is to put an adjective before the noun: nice view, tasty treat, hot day. But every once in a while, we put the adjective after the noun. Often this is because it comes from a language where adjective-after-noun is the norm, namely French. Much of our legal and military terminology comes from French and Latin, and some noun-adjective compounds, like “attorney general,” came with it. This leads to a situation where the act of putting the modifier after the noun becomes a mark of authority and importance, even with regular English words.

Time immemorial, words unspoken, lands unknown (and phrases similar) take on a loftier quality than their mundane reversed counterparts. It also leads to some plurals that work in unexpected ways. Here are 26 of them.

1. Attorneys general

Also postmasters, secretaries, consuls, and surgeons general. The “general” in these compounds originated as an adjective opposed to “special” or “particular.” In the UK it is commonly pluralized as “attorney generals,” but in the US we have decided to dig in our etymological heels and make an example of this plural within a compound.

2. Courts-martial

Here “martial” is the adjective for military. So “courts-martial” is preferred, but “court-martials” is also acceptable.

3. Notaries public

“Notary publics” is also used, but “notaries public” sounds that much more official.

4. Senators elect

“Elect” is one of those Latin-flavored adjectives that make everything seem a touch more important.

5. Sergeants major

“Sergeant majors” is also acceptable.

6. Sums total

This was more common in the 19th century, before “total” became a noun.

7. Fees simple

In legal terms a fee (related to “fief”) is an owned piece of land, and “simple” is an adjective meaning without complications, free and clear from other claims on it.

8. Heirs apparent

Heirs apparent (first in line regardless of whether anyone else will be born) have a leg up on heirs presumptive (first in line unless any heirs apparent are born).

9. Bodies politic

Over the centuries “body politic” has been used to refer to offices held by individuals that are passed down through succession (King, Bishop, Abbot), society considered as a whole, or the state/nation. In each case, “politic” is an adjective.

10. Knights-errant

The “errant” in “knight-errant”—that staple of medieval literature, the wandering, adventure-seeking knight—goes back to the same root as “itinerant” and “itinerary,” Latin iter, journey.

11. Poets laureate

“Laureate” is an adjective from the Latin for “crowned with a laurel.” Careful with this one, though. Don’t go crazy and start saying “Nobels laureate.” A “poet laureate” is a poet, but a Nobel laureate is not a Nobel. Use “Nobel laureates.” And if you want to seem less hifalutin’, use “poet laureates” too.

12. Professors emeriti

One “professor emeritus,” two “professors emeritus.” But if you want to go whole hog, use “professors emeriti” with the Latin plural adjective. Your professors emeriti will love it.

13. Personae non gratae

There are a few acceptable ways to pluralize “persona non grata,” the Latin term for unwelcome person. It’s often used as a whole descriptive phrase for a plural (“they were persona non grata”) or pluralized in English (personas non grata). The proper, full-on Latin plural (“persona” being a feminine noun) is “personae non gratae.”

14. Curricula vitae

“Curriculum vitae” means “course of life” in Latin. Some go with “curriculums vitae” on this, while others take up the Latin plural “curricula vitae.” And a few push it a little too far with “curriculum vitarum” (courses of lives). When in doubt, use "CVs."

15. Culs-de-sac

“Cul-de-sac” comes from the French for “bottom of a bag” – that’s “bottom” as in “booty.” Cul-de-sacs is a perfectly acceptable plural in English, but culs-de-sac has a little more je ne sais quoi.

16. Agents provocateurs

In this French phrase for infiltrators trying to stir things up, both the noun and the adjective take an ‘s’.

17. Femmes fatales

Likewise for this one.

18. Coups d’état

A coup is a blow or strike. In English we follow the French way of not pronouncing the “p” in “coup d’état,” and in the plural, we add another unpronounced French letter just for good measure. (Same for “coups de grace.”)

19. Forces majeures

A legal term for “act of God” or unforeseen major disaster. Again, both the noun and the adjective get pluralized.

20. Films noirs

“Film noirs” is perfectly good English. “Films noir” is a commonly used hybrid. “Films noirs” is how to do it à la française.

21. Battles royal

Be advised: Don’t try this in the world of professional wrestling, where it’s “battle royals.”

22. Rights-of-way

There are a whole set of English words that are not exactly of the form “noun adjective” but they have a noun followed by a modifier of some kind, usually a prepositional phrase. In these cases, the plural can go on the end, or on the noun.

23. Mothers-in-law

24. Sleights-of-hand

25. Editors-in-chief

26. Johnnies-come-lately

English has no problem turning even bigger phrases into nouns and pluralizing them the normal way (“ne’er-do-wells” “forget-me-nots”), but when there’s a noun inside a set phrase, we get unsure of ourselves. “Johnny-come-latelies” works, but so does the “Johnnies” version. (See also, “sticks-in-the-mud,” “Jacks-in-the-box”).

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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