Tongues in Cheek(s): a Grammar Question

Diagram of human brain showing surface gyri an...Image via WikipediaOkay wordsmiths not eating turkey quite yet today, I have a question of language–more particularly, of singular versus plural in phrases, thusly:

If more than one of them shows up at court, we don’t speak of “attorney at laws” but put the plural on the first time, as it is the person there in more than one-ness: Attorneys-at-law.

But consider the phrase “right of way.” If we speak of more than one, it is not the rights in multiple but the way, the corridor, hence the “right-of-ways are in need of clearing” and not the rights-of-way. To my ear, the latter sounds very awkward.

And yet, in places that would know this kind of thing, I read rights-of-way, so I’m wrong here? Let me know your opinion and also any informed judgment you have based on both common practice or the laws of grammar.

I have to use this phrase repeatedly in something I need to send off soon. Hep me!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. From a non-professional enjoyer of the English language, I would dub “rights of way” to be the correct formal construct. “Right of ways” would be the colloquial. In practice, I would use the former in speaking of a person’s right (the bicycle riders had the rights of way), while using the latter in speaking of property along a road. I read in some learned treatise on use of the English language that one should trust one’s ear. If it sounds right to you, use it! (Unless you are drafting a legal document, perhaps.)

  2. I have a dim memory from a class (linguistics?) while in college that the reason it is attorneys-at-law has to do with the origin of the phrase, which I think may be French. The English language is such a huge borrower of words from other languages that it drives native speakers of other languages nuts when they try to learn all of its intricacies.

  3. Phred:

    Remember that you are dealing here with legalese, which does not always conform to the standards of proper usage. Legal jargon is like journalistic usage: A language of its own. If you look on legal web sites and those that offer to prepare documents online, the correct usages is “rights of way” if you are dealing with the right to use a road or space for ingress and egress and “right of ways” if you are talking about the actual, physical, space.

    Then, again, this is the country and the proper language might be “I want to give my old buddy same there the right to use that stretch of road that runs by the crick and up into the hollow.”

    Or something like that.

  4. Websters gives rights-of-way as the first choice and right-of-ways as a second choice, so either is acceptable.

    But if you look at Websters’ first and second definitions of “right-of-way,” perhaps you can infer that sometimes one plural is better suited than the other:
    “(1) A legal right of passage over another person’s ground.” So if it’s the “rights” involved that are your focus, use rights-of way.
    “(2) The area over which a right-of-way exists; the strip of land …” So if it’s the land involved that you’re talking about, use right-of-ways.

  5. Black’s Law Dictionary makes no distinction between the right or the way, only noting plural form as “rights-of-way”, not right-of-ways. I’m a land surveyor and the former sounds much better.

  6. I have often questioned this in my 30+ years of working in the appraisal and right-of-way field. I see many opinions, and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. If you are describing more than one, and it is possible for each one to contain a different bundle of rights, then why not say rights-of-ways?

  7. The style manuals I use all have the plural as rights of way, like heirs appraent, and attorneys general. I agree that common spoken useage pluralizes “.. the many right of ways that need to be checked”. the distinction between pluralizing right vs. rights (e.g. mineral AND water rights in one way vs a right of entry to many ways) seems archaic to me. established convention is that right is the noun modified by of way. Common practice uses right-of-way as the noun, synonymous (though not in the legal sense) to easement. For common useage the distinction’s not great. For legal, contractual, or other professional documents I would stay with more traditional useage – rights of way.