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Say I was giving a presentation to representatives from the offices of the Attorneys General of several states. How would I describe that meeting and why? I think it is the below, but am not sure whether it should be Generals' or Attorneys' or what. And I have no idea why.

Meeting with State Attorneys General's Offices.

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    There is probably a "correct" way of using an apostrophe, but to get it out of the way, I'll suggest recasting the sentence to "Meeting with the offices of the State Attorneys-General". That doesn't answer the question, though. – Andrew Leach Feb 22 '18 at 18:09
  • Should it be States' Attorney's General Offices? So confused. – Erik H. Feb 22 '18 at 19:03
  • Your existing suggestion is correct, but it might confuse people who don't understand correct when they see it. You do, so that's hardly your fault that they do not. :) – tchrist Feb 22 '18 at 22:54
  • Although it looks wrong, I think Attorney General's Offices is technically correct. I believe that it is analagous to the posessive of other plurals which do not end in 's'. For example the children's shoes, the foremen's cabin, the sheep's eyes and so on. The last one is really confusing as it is unclear whether the eyes belong to one sheep or to several but sheeps is not a word so sheeps' with a trailing apostrophe cannot be correct. – BoldBen Sep 23 at 9:13
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There are two questions here:

  1. What is the plural of State Attorney General?
  2. How to express the possessive of that plural?

I can offer a rule for Question 1. Is the person a state, an attorney, or a general? He or she is an attorney, so the plural goes with that noun. In the UK military there is a rank of Major General. What is the plural? Apply the rule: a Major General is a General not a Major, so the plural is Major Generals.

Another couple of UK examples. An important ceremonial post in a county is the Lord Lieutenant. Plural: Lord Lieutenants because, applying the rule, they are lieutenants, not lords. The politicians nominally in charge of the Treasury are each called a Lord Commissioner. Plural: in that case they are lords as well as commissioners, so the plural is Lords Commissioners.

As to Question 2, the issue is really how pedantic you want to be. Ultra pedantic: State Attorneys' General. In less pedantic real life, I do not believe anyone would actually say that, so the apostrophe would go after General.

Capitalisation is a style guide matter not grammar. Some would not capitalise any such titles. Some would follow, out of courtesy, any official guidance, such as the relevant legislation.

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Since "State Attorney General" is a title, and the plural would be "State Attorneys General".

To remove the confusion with the apostrophe I would recommend phrasing the sentence this way; "meeting with the offices of several State Attorneys General"

The "office" in in full is referred to as the Office of the Attorney General, so to have office come before general makes sense.

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The plural form of 'attorney general'

The plural form of "attorney general" is less settled than fans of Eggs McMuffin might suppose. Here is the treatment of the plural issue in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition (2003):

attorney general n, pl attorneys general or attorney generals ...

And here is the corresponding treatment in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010):

attorney general n., pl. attorneys general or attorney generals ...

These entries indicate that a significant number of English speakers and writers adhere to one or the other of the two plural forms listed, but that the first listed form ("attorneys general") is the more common form. An Ngram chart comparing "attorneys general" (blue line) with "attorney generals" (red line) for the period 1780–2005 confirms a strong preference for "attorneys general" since about 1933:

I should perhaps note that it is extremely common in U.S. English to refer to "the state's attorney general" or (for example) "the Texas state attorney general" in all lowercase letters, which makes JeremyC's argument (in a separate answer) premised on treating the official title as a proper name unworkable, at least in the United States. Indeed, The Associated Press Style Book (2007) insists that even at the federal level—where there is only one attorney general at a time to worry about—"attorney general" should be initial-capped only when it appears immediately before a particular attorney general's name:

attorney general, attorneys general Never abbreviate. Capitalize only when used as a title before a name: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.


The possessive of the plural form of 'attorney general'

In a May 13, 2013, posting on the Above the Law website, Bryan Garner—an expert on U.S. English usage and, more particularly, on U.S. legal usage—comes out four-square for "attorneys general" as the proper plural in the U.S. English; but then he endorses a classic editorial position on the question of how to express the possessive of the plural of "attorney general":

And how do you make the plural phrase attorneys general into a possessive? You don't, preferably. You might try to make a case for 35 attorneys general's briefs, but you'd induce more head-scratching than readerly agreement. To avoid any miscues, the better course is to rephrase with an of-genitive. So if you want to discuss the briefs of more than one attorney general, simply say the briefs of the attorneys general. Fortunately, most jurisdictions have only one attorney general at a time, so the plural-possessive form is not a problem you're likely to encounter often.

Clearly, Garner reckoned not with the rise in recent years of law suits filed by multiple states' attorneys general against the federal government to challenge everything from the legitimacy of the Affordable Care Act to (only a couple of days ago) a federal administrative rule change disallowing states from setting air quality standards for auto emissions that are more exacting than the federal standards.

Garner asserts British English normally uses the hyphenated singular form "attorney-general" and, therefore, prefer "attorney-generals" as the plural. The reality in British English seems to be considerably murkier than that. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971) offers a split recommendation:

Attorney-general.1. gen. A legal representative or deputy acting under a general commission or 'power' of attorney, and representing his principal in all legal matters : opposed to attorney special or particular. Plural : attorneys general. Obs. [Citations omitted.] 2. spec. Attorney-General, Attorney General : a legal officer of the state empowered to act in all cases in which the state is a party. ... Plural (better) : Attorney-Generals.

So if you're talking about congeries of old-fashioned (or obsolete) all-purpose attorneys in the UK, the OED says that you should refer to them as "attorneys general"; but if you are talking about multiple states' legal officers, you would do "better" to refer to them as "Attorney-Generals."

But another British English dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, second edition (1987) expresses a different preference:

attorney general n attorneys general or attorney generals (usu. caps.) ...

Garner's assertion about the tendency in British English to hyphenate "attorney-general" notwithstanding, Longman lists only open forms and gives precedence to "attorneys general" over "attorney generals."

Garner's less disputable point is that the expression "35 attorneys' general briefs" is unlikely to pass muster even as a description of an underwear party. So realistically, you must either commit to "attorneys general's" or take the course that wise writers everywhere have taken.

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There is another way.

In your particular situation, you are giving a presentation to representatives from the offices of several attorneys general. That means that

you are meeting with several state attorneys general (if you're meeting with the big cheeses themselves)

or, if each one sends an associate,

you are meeting with state attorney general representatives from several states.

You don't have to tie yourself into knots just so you can use "offices" and an apostrophe somewhere. People will understand you just fine with either of these options.

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