Lately, something has struck me. I've been hearing several expressions in English, some clearly borrowed from French and preserving their noun-adjective form. Some examples are:

Attorney General
Secretary General
Court Martial
Notary Public

I suspect there are more that I have missed. However, in each of the 4 cases listed above, I feel 'OK' saying them the 'English' way; that is, adjective-noun, which is the way we almost always do things except for these borrowed phrases. One might receive a statement from the General Attorney, or be sent to a Martial Court. My father is actually a lawyer and does indeed describe himself as a Public Notary. Doing things this way makes the plural sound a lot more sensible in English, too; which sounds better: General Secretaries, or Secretaries General?

How common is it for people to flip these borrowed phrases around and say them the more standard English adjective-noun way? Might it be clearer in the long run if we did so?

  • 2
    Your third item should really be court martial - i.e., a military court.
    – Alex
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 22:02
  • 2
    In France nobody takes some rest "en fin de semaine", but instead "en week end". Saying "en end week" would be unimaginable. Mes deux centimes. Commented May 29, 2011 at 22:41

4 Answers 4


The point about these phrases is not whether they came from French (which I find dubious), but that they are unique titles. There are dozens of general attorneys, but only one Attorney General. Similarly with Secretary-General (of the UN) as opposed to General Secretary of a union or organization, and Surgeon General in the US. Court martial is harder to see, but it may be an obsolete conceit that all sitting military courts are part of one Court Martial (as Henry said), in the same way that the Supreme Court may consist of any number of judges, and may even hear two cases at once, while remaining formally one Court. ("Court Supreme" sounds like a dessert, and lawyers hate being made fun of.) I don't know about Notary Public, but it doesn't seem unlikely that (for example) only one lawyer in each town was originally allowed to use the title.


The titles you list are just that: titles of offices held by certain notables. A public notary, while the term may be understood, would not be official and may not even be legally accurate.

Although reversing (or unreversing, however you will have it) the order may appeal to your sense of propriety, a "general attorney" is simply not the same thing as the Attorney General.

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    Beat me to it: more concise and just as accurate. Commented May 29, 2011 at 22:52
  • I don't get it: If we called them the General Attorney or Public Notary it could be as official and legally accurate. After all there are many official titles in American English that are not postnominal: E.g., Vice President, Chief Justice, Deputy Chief, Majority Leader.
    – feetwet
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 15:13

In Britain, trades unions and some other large membership organisations have a General Secretary as their most senior permanent member of staff.

For your other three examples: there are notaries (though rarer than in other countries, and generally not called public); the senior Government lawyer is the Attorney General; and there is now a single Court Martial (and an appeal court).

  • How do you mean 'a single Court Martial'? That still puts the noun before the adjective.
    – Jedd
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 22:31
  • It does, but before 2006 the UK had the plural issue of courts martial and solved the problem by only having one.
    – Henry
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 23:40

People rarely invert the examples or other similar phrases. Indeed, they form the plurals very often by appending s to the adjective; e.g. "court martials." In many circles, you will be thought effete if you use "courts martial."

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    I think you're the first person to actually answer the question! I'd upvote if I accepted your third claim. Highfalutin', yes. Effete? // I've just checked at the Free Dictionary; AHDEL's definitions are strikingly non-parallel to Collins' and those of RHK Webster's. Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 1:51

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