Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

A recurring theme has popped up again and again with the Grammar 101 series on this blog. Words that sound the same but have entirely different meanings and spellings can be awfully confusing, especially if these words aren’t written down all that often. We’re coming right back to the struggle with homophones once again, this time tackling the words martial, marshal and Marshall. What’s the difference?

The word “martial” is an adjective meaning related to or suitable for war in some way. Most people know about “martial arts” like karate and taekwondo. These are disciplines used for the purposes of combat, typically, because the movements of these “arts” are related to fighting.

The Spartans depicted in the movie 300 can be described as a martial people, because that civilization was so focused on wars and battles. Similarly, when the regular laws of the law are suspended in favor of “martial law,” it means that the military (specifically, the head of the military) has taken absolute command of the land. Society has broken down into a warlike state.

By accidentally transposing a couple of letters, the word “martial” can become “marital,” which is entirely different. “Marital” is also an adjective, but it would mean relating to marriage… though there are certainly some marriages that can appear warlike too.

The word “marshal” may sound like it is also related to war and the military, but it is used in a different way. It is not an adjective. Instead, it can be used either as a noun or as a verb.

As a noun, a marshal is a high-ranking officer in the armed forces or (in the United States) an offer of the U.S. Justice Department. You have watched movies or TV shows about US marshals. A marshal can also be a parade leader or you might talk about a fire marshal. While the modern usage of “marshal” relates to a high-ranking individual, the older usage of the world described a servant who took care of horses.

As a verb, “to marshal” is to arrange or to assemble, particularly when it comes to organizing a group of people. This can once again relate back to the military, as you might talk about marshaling a troop of soldiers.

You might be wondering why “Marshall” is the only one of these three terms that I capitalized. That’s because “Marshall” is only used as a proper name, as would be the case with Marshall Mathers III. Its origins are based on the single “L” word marshal, but has evolved into the double-letter form for someone’s first name or last name.

There’s no such thing as marshal law, but you could say U.S. Marshal Jim Marshall declared martial law, marshaling several infantry down Main Street.