I would expect the term "inspector general" to be "general inspector" instead.

In part, that may be because I know the German variant as "Generalinspekteur" of "Generalinspektor".

But I'm pretty sure it would be like this without knowing the German word, just from general language intuition.

So, why does the order of words make sense?

It would be interesting how it came to be like that - but that would not answer it alone.
(An answer to Is it common to use the borrowed noun-adjective form for borrowed French phrases? indicates it may be a method distinguish titles from general desrciptions.)

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    Because "general inspector" has a different meaning.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 22:32
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  • @HotLicks Which other meaning? I only find en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Inspector_of_the_Armed_Forces - which uses General Inspector in just the same way (in Poland). Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 23:13
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    Would it help to consider for a moment the office of Surgeon General? It should be clear that the person who occupies this office is not simply a "general surgeon" whose title features a unique ordering of noun and modifier, but a surgeon of high military or administrative rank in the government service. I see Inspector General and Attorney General as analogously understood titles.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 0:41
  • @SvenYargs The meaning would be clear to me, yes - but I would understand "Surgeon General" only from context, not from the word itself. Are you saying the title "Surgeon General" is a title, such that it implies the title "General", making it formally correct to refer to the surgeon as "Dear Mr. General" or "General John Doe did something."? Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 1:50

2 Answers 2


There are numerous examples of adjectives which are sometimes or always placed after the noun they modify (postnominal or postpositive usage). Wikipedia has a useful article, which includes:

A postpositive adjective is an attributive adjective that is placed after the noun or pronoun that it modifies. This contrasts with prepositive adjectives, which come before the noun or pronoun.

In some languages (such as French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian) the postpositive placement of adjectives is the normal syntax, but in English it is less usual, largely confined to archaic and poetic uses (as in They heard creatures unseen), certain traditional phrases (such as heir apparent), and certain particular grammatical constructions (as in those anxious to leave)....

Set phrases

There are many set phrases in English which feature postpositive adjectives. They are often loans or loan translations from foreign languages that commonly use postpositives, especially French (many legal terms come from Law French). Some examples appear below:

Legal and general terms: agent provocateur, battle royal, body corporate, body politic, corporation sole, court-martial, fee simple, fee tail, femme fatale, force majeure, God Almighty, heir apparent, heir presumptive, knight errant, language isolate, letters close, letters patent, life everlasting, the light fantastic, malice aforethought (also malice prepense), persona non grata, mens rea, pound sterling, proof positive, spaghetti bolognese, sum total, time immemorial, times past, treasure trove (in the legal sense)

Names of posts, ranks, etc.: bishop emeritus, professor emeritus, etc.; attorney general, consul general, governor general, postmaster general, surgeon general, etc.; Astronomer Royal, Princess Royal, etc.; airman basic, minister plenipotentiary, minister-president, notary public, poet laureate, prime minister-designate, prince regent, sergeant major; queen consort, prince consort, etc.; queen regnant, prince regnant, etc.

Various terms used in heraldry, including dexter and sinister (as in bend dexter, bend sinister), and several referring to attitude, as in eagle displayed, lion passant guardant, griffin rampant, phoenix rising, bird vigilant, etc.

Names of organizations: Alcoholics Anonymous, Amnesty International, ARCHIVE Global, Child United, Church Universal and Triumphant, Generation Next, Japan Airlines Domestic, Jet-Blue, Ruritan National, Situationist International, Socialist International, Verizon Wireless, Virgin Mobile, Weather Underground, Workers United

Hospital emergency codes: Code Amber, Code Black, Code Orange, Code Red

Terms referring to food and drink: chicken supreme, etc.; whiskey sour, etc.

Regnal numbers and other appellations, usually including the definite article before the adjective: Henry the Eighth, Elizabeth the Second, Alexander the Great, Ethelred the Unready, etc. Note also the generational titles Junior and Senior, and a few special cases such as Nero Redivivus.

Certain other adjectives, or words of adjectival type, are typically placed after the noun, although their use is not limited to particular noun(s). Some of them may alternatively be regarded as adverbial modifiers, which would be expected to follow the noun (see below). Examples of such uses include buildings ablaze, two abreast, holidays abroad, fun and games à gogo, arms akimbo, food aplenty, athlete extraordinaire, tulips galore, devil incarnate, a hero manqué, the Cold War redux.

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    I think that for titles, Law French is (almost always?) the answer.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 23:34
  • And they get upset about Franglais. Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 9:00
  • No, that’s Froglegs: they get upset about Froglegs. Franglais is some sort of fancy dessert.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 11:06

I smell French word order in "inspector general", cf the company Société Général. But you can do either in English. Some phrases are stuck in the one, though, there has never been a general witchfinder.

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