Why the "brothers Grimm" but the "Brontë sisters"?

Is there any order to follow? I’ve heard and read both “The brothers Wright” and “The Wright brothers”; “the brothers Wesley” and “the Wesley brothers”. As for "the brothers Karamazov" and "the Karamazov brothers", I've googled and found both forms, but many more hits for "The brothers Karamazov" Is there any rule on word-order here?


The general rule is that we would use "The X brothers" or "The X sisters".

And indeed, we might indeed use that form if we were talking about the two Grimms other than as named authors: "The Grimm brothers were both professors at the University of Göttingen".

It's not unheard of to use the form "The Brothers X" if we have cause to use it as a name, treating them as a single unit, but that's an unusual case to begin with, and an unusual form even then.

Still, the case does come up in terms of their co-authored books, in that we are using it as a single name for that authorship. The fact that it means we have a direct translation of the name they used in the original versions, "Die Brüder Grimm" adds weight to that particular choice.

It would still be unusual, but the decision made by the translator, that became the name stamped on the books, and hence the unusual generally became the particular here.

Likewise, while "The Brothers Karamazov" is an unusual wording compared to "The Karamazov Brothers" when the first translator decided that it sounded better to favour the wording that most directly corresponded with "Бра́тья Карама́зовы" the unusual generally became the particular there.

It's also worth noting that the choice wouldn't have been quite as unusual in the 19th century than it is now, again in contexts where we want to have a name for such brothers (or sisters, or family to consider how "Der Schweizerische Robinson" was translated) that treated them as a single unit—still less common than the other way around, but not quite as strange as it is now.

But the published books with "Brothers Karamazov" and "Brothers Grimm" on the front of them remained as they are as "Brothers X" became even less common, and stay crystallised in that form as we pick them up today, and so the Brothers Grimm remain the Brothers Grimm.

  • IMO it's common in English that you have what I call the "Ye Olde English" effect. There will be two (actually, absolutely identical) ways to phrase something. As it happens, one way has a more, let's say, weighty .. profound feel. (If you asked a naive English speaker how they thought it sounded, they'd probably say it sounds "legal" or "ancient" or similar.) I believe this is ultimately because the English-speaking milieu is broadly on average both very uneducated and very pretentious. For whatever reason you see this all the time. It just "sounds" "more weighty" as Brothers X. – Fattie Jun 12 '15 at 4:09

Something to consider ..

The Brothers Grimm refers to the "unit", the "act", the "legal (so to speak) entity", the "artistic entity". You are referring to the "group" as one entity.

It's like saying "The Beatles".

Conversely, referring to the Grimm brothers is like saying "John, Paul, Ringo and George" or "all the people in that room" or "everyone here wearing blue" or "the list of people I iterated earlier".

Of course, this is not hard and fast. There is plenty of cross-over and mixing here.

As an "act", a legal unit, an "artistic unit", we typically say

The Wachowskis

I think really just because it sounds cool and someone started so doing and it stuck; and as an actual legal unity, or an act, we say

The Carpenters

because they happened to explicitly choose that as their "act name" (rather than say "the Siblings Carpenter" or many other choices).

But, it is the case that "The Brothers Grimm" refers to "a unit" (You're saying "The Beatles", not "John, Paul, George and Ringo".)

Any form "The Brothers X" does tend to lean, perhaps absolutely leans, towards meaning the unit. The other way around, tends to mean shorthand-for-listing-individuals-with-ands-between (although it can and is, of course, also simply be used as am actual act name).

  • But why does the surname seem to always precede brothers such as: "The Everly Brothers", "Coen brothers", "The Doobie Brothers" and "The Andrews Sisters". Can you think of a group where its name began with "The Brothers ____"? – Mari-Lou A Jun 12 '15 at 5:58
  • Calling a family by its surname is not new: The Joneses, The Simpsons, The Kennedys etc.. – Mari-Lou A Jun 12 '15 at 6:06

I’ve heard and read both “The brothers Wright” and “The Wright brothers”

French people can say "the Brothers Wright" but this is wrong.

Arnold Fordyce, a French negotiator, is quoted, by a newspaper from Dayton, as saying:

"I will take it back with me, and will have an offer made to the Brothers Wright, through the French government"

Source: “Wright Air Ship May Be Bought by French Government for Defense”, Dayton Herald, Ohio, US, December 30, 1905, Scrapbook - Library of Congress, US, p. 2.

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