Sons-in-law and attorneys general

When we pluralize words like son-in-law, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, etc., we do that by simply taking the noun and adding an s.

So it’s mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, sons-in-law, etc. For example, the author has two lovely daughters-in-law. (They are not daughter-in-laws.)

Some of you are screaming at me now and saying, “But law is a noun, too.” Aye, but there’s the rub: the phrase “in-law” is an adjective describing the kind of mother/father/son/daughter you’re talking about. So in that two-word construction, law is not a separate noun.

This week’s other funny/funky plural is a legal and/or governmental term: attorney general. In this phrase, general is an adjective, not a noun. It describes the kind of attorney we are talking about. (Insert tasteless lawyer joke here.] So we take the noun—attorney—and add an s when we want to make it a plural. So one attorney general, two attorneys general, three attorneys general (and that’s really all the attorneys anyone wants to deal with, yes?).

Don’t overcomplicate things here. Just find the noun and add the s there.


They’re and Their and There

They’re is a contraction joining they and are. The apostrophe has nothing to do with a possessive, but simply takes the place of the missing “a” when you combine the two words (such as didn’t).

So if you can write they are for a situation, then you can write they’re instead.

Their means belonging to them, whoever they are. Their friends, their boots, their thoughts. We can never say they are boots unless you are calling those people boots. If they own boots, we would say their boots.

There used to be spelled correctly almost all of the time. Now it’s in the same danger as those other two words that sound like it. There indicates a direction: “I put it over there, next to the couch.” But you already knew that.

Literally and Figuratively


We live in an age of exaggeration, and these two wonderful words have been two of the victims. Let’s do what we can to bring a measure of reason and exactness to them.

Literally means actually. Not like, not similar to, not as if, but actually. If something literally happened, then it really did happen in space and time.

Figuratively means that something was like something else, that it was “as if” something were like something else, but in actuality, wasn’t. We use word to create a comparison.

If something literally cost you an arm and a leg, that is both criminal and painful. If you say that it did, we should all know that you are speaking figuratively (we hope).

If something literally blew you away, then you ended up, due to high winds or an explosion of some sort, in a difference place from where you began.

If you were literally broke, that means that you have no money. Not a sou. Not a dime. Not a penny.

What we need to do is gently and slowly bring back the word figuratively into our speech, or at least into our written expressions. Or better still, let’s simply drop the word literally from our speech and writing altogether, because most of the time, we mean figuratively anyway!