Legal English for Spanish-speakers: Nouns with Postpositive Adjectives

When Spanish-speakers learn English they are generally taught that, unlike in Spanish, adjectives are placed before the noun (the “red house,” not the “house red;” the “green car,” not the “car green”). But in legal usage (and often in everyday English too!) there are a series of nouns followed by what are often termed “postpositive (or) postnominal adjectives.” Here are a few examples with (possible) Spanish renderings:

accounts payable—acreedores; cuentas por pagar
accounts receivable—deudores; cuentas por cobrar
body corporate—entidad con personalidad jurídica (corporation; legal entity)
condition precedent—condición suspensiva
condition subsequent—condición resolutoria
corporation de facto—sociedad irregular
corporation de jure—sociedad regular
consul general—consul general
court martial—tribunal militar; consejo de guerra
fee simple absolute—dominio pleno
heir apparent—heredero presunto
law merchant—Derecho mercantil
letters patent—patente
letters rogatory—comisión rogatoria
notary public—notario público
secretary general—secretario general
sum certain—precio cierto

To form the plural of these expressions it is generally the noun that is made plural, while the adjective remains unchanged (bodies corporate; conditions precedent/subsequent; consuls general; courts martial; heirs apparent; notaries public; secretaries general; sums certain, etc.)

(For a detailed explanation and many more examples see Bryan Garner, “Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage,” Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 692.)

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