Why "grand theft auto", not "grand auto theft"?



There is a video game series called "Grand Theft Auto".

According to its Wikipedia page:

The name of the series references the term used in the US for motor vehicle theft.


Motor vehicle theft or, grand theft auto, is the criminal act of stealing or attempting to steal a car (or any other motor vehicle).

I always wondered why this term sounds so strange.

  • Shouldn't it be "grand auto theft" or maybe "grand theft of auto" instead?
  • Are there any other terms with strange words order and/or missing prepositions like this?

Aleksander Alekseev

Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

Reputation: 2 301

Identical question on english.SE: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/48989/why-is-it-grand-theft-auto

– magnattic – 2016-07-19T16:41:01.393

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– ColleenV – 2018-02-20T23:44:32.773



The term is "grand theft" and the category it goes into (based on what is being stolen) is "auto".

Grand theft, also called grand larceny, designates theft that is large in magnitude or serious in penological consequences. Grand theft is contrasted with petty theft, theft that is of smaller magnitude or lesser seriousness.

What constitutes "grand theft" depends on the states. In California, which is where the games tend to be set, "grand theft" is defined as stealing something valued at over $950.

Grand theft is committed when the value of stolen property exceeds $950. Theft is also considered grand theft when more than $250 in crops or marine life-forms are stolen, “when the property is taken from the person of another,” or when the property stolen is an automobile, farm animal, or firearm. There are a number of criminal statutes in the California Penal Code defining grand theft in different amounts. Most common amount is $950.

This is in contrast to "petty theft".

If it helps, imagine that there's a comma or a dash between "theft" and "auto" and that it's an item on a list, not a full phrase.

  • Grand theft, auto
  • Grand theft - auto


Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

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3We have auto theft. Why does the word auto comes after theft when the word grand is adde? I mean, why it's not auto grand theft? – None – 2016-07-18T20:57:55.867

65@Avicenna Because the legal term is "grand theft" and the type of thing being stolen is "autos"... it's a classification. It's the same thing in a recipe as listing something as "potatoes - chopped" You list the thing first and the description of it second. – Catija – 2016-07-18T21:01:29.473

34Legal phrases are oft designed to be as unambiguous as possible at the expense of sometimes following different grammatical rules. The rational for exactly why they do things is often burred deep in legalese history. For example, our reason for the phrase "null and void" or "aiding or abetting" stems from the particular way French laws affected English common law. Its a historical artifact. – Cort Ammon – 2016-07-18T22:38:44.643

10@Catija Just to take Avicenna's point further, "potatoes - chopped" suffers from the same problem as "grand theft, auto" in that "chopped potatoes" is a more natural choice of word order. "auto grand theft" doesn't conflict with the idea that "grand theft" is the legal term and "auto" is the category (as opposed to the OP's "grand auto theft" which clearly does violate the correct naming of the legal term). – JBentley – 2016-07-19T00:18:13.000

4@Catija While the references for the definition of "grand theft", to actually answer the question you should provide some which actually discuss the word ordering issue that's at the core of the question. Your comma/dash explanation, while seemingly reasonable, is a post hoc construction and doesn't necessarily reflect the true origins of the term. – R.M. – 2016-07-19T00:18:38.557

6It's also worth considering that the alternative form is used too e.g. "first degree murder" (and not "murder first degree"). – JBentley – 2016-07-19T00:23:34.520

@hobbs Court martial, for example, comes originally from French (the plural is courts martial). I have a feeling it would formally read "grand theft (auto). – RedSonja – 2016-07-19T10:38:35.287

8@JBently I believe "murder in the first degree" is quite common, though. – KChaloux – 2016-07-19T12:31:06.097

4@JBentley It's a sorting / categorical problem, as Catija suggests. If you were searching a recipe book for chopped potatoes, would you start looking under "chopped" or "potatoes"? "Potatoes, Chopped" or "Potatoes - Chopped" makes the most sense, because potatoes is the most important part. Similarly you would look for grand theft auto under grand theft laws, not under auto laws. You'd look for murder in the "murder" section, not the "first" section. A better question, perhaps, is why is it not called "Theft grand auto"? Probably because that's three parts, and two is the standard. – Dan – 2016-07-19T17:42:25.667

1E.g. We would categorize Henry David Thoreau in the phone book "Thoreau, Henry David", rather than "Thoreau, David, Henry". – Dan – 2016-07-19T17:43:38.167

@Dan What you're describing is a suggestion for a hypothetical good way of labeling criminal offenses. It isn't however, compelling evidence, that that is the actual reason for the choice in name. Indeed, you argue that "murder first degree" is easier to sort than "first degree murder", but it is the latter that is the official name of the offence. Similarly, there is an offence of "voluntary manslaughter", not "manslaughter involuntary". – JBentley – 2016-07-19T20:06:01.837

@JBentley I don't think anybody here is arguing that the law is consistently worded according any one standard. The OP is asking about the very specific case of "grand theft auto", and I provided examples of other names which might make sense if they had followed the same conventions that "grand theft auto" does. In reality, there is absolutely no reason why it couldn't be "grand auto theft" except that it isn't. While consistency between different offenses may be lacking, consistently calling the same offense by the same name is vital. – Dan – 2016-07-19T20:49:44.210

@Dan I disagree. I think this answer has done a good job of justifying why it can't be "grand auto theft" (because the "auto" has no business being in the middle of the two words which specify the crime). On the other hand, I don't think anyone has yet presented a plausible reason why it should be "grand theft auto" instead of "auto grand theft", which leaves us with the position that both would have been valid choices. The "sorting" argument by definition must be consistent, otherwise you cannot correctly sort. So that can't be the real reason one was chosen over the other. – JBentley – 2016-07-19T22:17:06.977

@Dan To go to your example of the recipe book, if faced with a bunch of pre-existing entries such as "fried bananas, crispy bacon, gooey chocolate", it's unlikely you would be choosing "potatoes chopped" because you want it to sort well, since the other entries already make it impossible to sort by food name. – JBentley – 2016-07-19T22:19:23.617

1I always imagined colon the separator: "grand theft: auto". – None – 2016-07-20T05:10:16.110

1Slightly pedantic point: GTA1, GTA3, and GTA 4 were set in a fictionalized version of New York, not California. GTA San Andreas (3.2) and GTA V are set in a fictionalized version of California. (GTA2 was set in three cities across the USA). So, New York has actually featured more in the history of the series. – Max Williams – 2016-07-20T08:59:24.127

@Catija The majority of recipes I've read ask for "chopped potatoes," not "potatoes - chopped." Both make sense, but I'd definitely expect the former. Overall it seems the answer is similar: both make sense, at some point, someone picked one, that one stuck. – GrandOpener – 2016-07-20T13:44:02.670

@GrandOpener There are certainly some recipes that will do that... it generally depends on if they say "4 potatoes, chopped" or "2 cups chopped potatoes"... but the question is asking something more like, why is the game "new potatoes chopped" instead of "new chopped potatoes". I'm pretty certain that you'd agree that "new chopped potatoes" is wrong. – Catija – 2016-07-20T15:50:04.477

@JBentley I don't think "first degree murder" actually is a different ordering than "grand theft"; in both cases the severity precedes the crime. Also, "murder" may not be the best term to compare as it has only one subject, people. – Uueerdo – 2016-07-20T20:47:23.207


In English, we can move the head of noun phrase, which normally appears at the end, to the beginning. This helps with the naming systems used in technical jargons and other situation in which we want to put the general category on the left, and the particular category on the right.

In writing, we usually put in a comma when this reversal happens. So for instance "phillips screw" becomes "screw, phillips". If we have an alphabetized catalog in which various screws appear, then this helps because we find all the screws together under S.

Thus "grand theft auto" wants to be written "grand theft, auto"; i.e. "grand theft" of the "auto" kind. In legal language, the comma is probably dropped because these terms are used frequently and function as a unit.

A similar thing happens with names: we can write someone's surname before their given names and initials. For instance, "Bach, Johann S." rather than "Johann S. Bach".

Reversals in adjective phrases can occur in poetry. We don't have to search very long for an example. How about the opening lines of "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

"Midnight dreary" is not strange grammar that wants to be "dreary midnight". The native speaker won't so much as flinch an eyebrow at this usage; it is part of the language.


Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

Reputation: 6 114

27Why do you think that "midnight dreary" is standard? The only reason a native doesn't bat an eye is because the phrase is so well-known. If I started talking about my bucket red and hippo huge, I think everyone would find it very odd. – Catija – 2016-07-18T23:49:23.933

5@Catija They would find you odd, not "it". – Kaz – 2016-07-19T01:13:58.440

6... same thing. It is not standard and it would not be accepted outside of very specific instances. – Catija – 2016-07-19T02:38:43.917

@Catija What wording can be replace or remove in the answer so that the answer doesn't assert that this reversal is standard usage that can be used in any context? – Kaz – 2016-07-19T03:11:55.220

3We do it all the time with geography too - Lake Michigan, Lake Tahoe, Gulf of Mexico, Mount Rushmore. – corsiKa – 2016-07-19T17:36:09.927

9An unusual placement for adjectives is often used for emphasis. Note the difference in connotation between, "A large, menacing tiger appeared," and, "A tiger, large and menacing, appeared." The entire noun phrase construction in English is rather complex. – ttw – 2016-07-19T17:54:35.143

2@Catija - It is, actually, pretty standard. We're both American English speakers natively, so by way of example, it's easy to say that Bostonians speak oddly, or Texans, but much of what they say doesn't fall outside of standard English usage. Adjective reversals may not be common in contemporary English, but they're also not incorrect or deviant English. If nothing else, it's fairly common in creative works - writing, plays, song lyrics, etc. – Jesse Williams – 2016-07-22T13:34:14.033

1@Catija My bucket red would not be odd if it were used in a poetic sense. As it is, it sounds mildly archaic, but it is certainly acceptable in many circumstances. I sing the body electric. – forest – 2018-07-25T01:58:02.057


The earliest reference to the phrase that Google has on hand is from the Los Angeles Police department's annual report in 1936. It makes a lot of sense that this could have been one of the first uses: the Model T had only been on the market for about twenty years at this point in time. Car theft was quite likely a very new crime, and Los Angeles -- among the first American cities to really embrace the car at a fundamental level -- was probably among the first places it was happening.

In this report, the phrase is rendered as both "Grand Theft Auto" and "Grand Theft (Auto)," which I think provides fairly good support for the explanations others have given. "Grand theft" itself was a very long-established crime, and car thefts would have simply fallen under pre-existing laws against grand theft. The LAPD report also lists crimes such as "Grand theft by trick and device," "Petty theft with prior [criminal conviction]," etc.

I will confirm that the first time I heard the term "Grand Theft Auto" it sounded quite strange to me, and I'm an American.

Daniel McLaury

Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

Reputation: 525


In most states in the United States, Grand Theft is a type of crime--a theft of something expensive or significant. Petty Theft is theft of something smaller. Grand theft auto is the specific crime of stealing an automobile. Grand theft firearm is the specific crime of stealing a gun. There are other kinds of grand theft, including theft of crops or farm animals.

Lee Lance

Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

Reputation: 61


As a native American English speaker, 'grand auto theft' would imply something very different to me than 'grand theft auto'. In the first, 'grand' would appear to describe 'auto' and not 'theft'. The theft is what is 'grand' (i.e. 'large' or 'significant') here, not the automobile. If you hyphentated it like this: 'grand auto-theft' it would be semantically equivalent but people would not understand you in conversation. Looking at the California penal code you can find other classifications of 'grand theft'. Perhaps it is simply that 'grand theft avocado' isn't a common criminal charge that this one formulation is the one we find familiar.


Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

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1Stealing a (grand auto) would be the same thing, wouldn't it? A grand theft implies that what was stolen is grand (as opposed to petty). – JDługosz – 2016-07-19T20:35:20.333

2Not many people in the US would consider a $1000 vehicle to be a 'grand auto'. 'grand theft' a.k.a 'grand larceny' is a phrase where the two words together mean more than the sum of their parts because it's a legal term. – JimmyJames – 2016-07-19T20:39:37.917

1Ah, so grand means different things if applied to different nouns. – JDługosz – 2016-07-19T20:43:55.357

1Yes and no. The meaning is related. At a very general level it means 'more' and in this case designates a binary 'grand' (big) versus 'petty' (small) but generally when you say grand it generally means 'really great' or 'very impressive'. – JimmyJames – 2016-07-19T20:52:16.053

1It's not strictly related to the term "grand theft auto", but since we're discussing the word, "a grand" is also english slang for "a thousand dollars". In that sense, a $1000 car could be considered a "one grand auto", even if that one auto ain't particularly grand. – John Smith – 2016-07-20T21:36:15.250

ahh, as a non-native I always struggle with this. Is "Last action hero" the last of action heroes or the hero of last action? Assuming that the first is correct, that would still make "grand auto theft" big theft of an auto, wouldn't it? – Agent_L – 2016-07-21T13:16:27.373

@Agent_L I should probably be more clear in that it all depends on what is customary. For example, "clubbing seals" could be interpreted very differently in India than in the US i.e. bringing them together in groups (at least some parts of India) versus beating them to death (US). In this case 'grand theft' is an atomic phrase and 'auto' is a classification. A somewhat silly illustration is 'grand theft piano' versus 'grand piano theft'. Since 'grand piano' is a thing and 'action hero' is a thing they are grouped together (clubbed) first. These are all somewhat ambiguous and idiomatic. – JimmyJames – 2016-07-21T14:55:56.730

@JimmyJames clubbing seals is bad example imho, as there is no room for the kind of ambiguity we're discussing, but the great piano is a truly superb one that made it very clear. I think it's called "collocation". – Agent_L – 2016-07-21T15:07:08.940

@Agent_L I had meant to point out that I think the phrase 'grand theft auto' is easiest understood to be 'grand theft of auto' where the 'of' is implied. It probably should have a : to indicate this is a category of grand theft. I'm guessing that it was so commonly used and was the only special category of grand theft that came up on a regular basis and the punctuation was dropped. Car theft was extremely common in the mid 20th century and theft of things like farm animals was not. – JimmyJames – 2016-07-21T16:58:28.200


Because it's a description that follows the pattern, or syntax, of: first General, second Specific So, it's:

  • Grand theft (General) Auto (Specific)
  • Other examples are:
  • Grand theft (General) jewelery (Specific)

  • Grand theft (General) bank notes (Specific)

  • Grand theft (General) electronic devices (Specific)

  • Petty theft (General) street crime (Specific)

  • Petty theft (General) pick pocketing (Specific)

To be honest, I don't know if ALL these crimes exist, but this is how a detective explained it to me once on a field trip in school.


Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

Reputation: 151


This syntax is very common in all areas involving government classification. Here are some examples of part descriptions from the National Stock Number (NSN) list, which is a list of all the items that the US Government purchases:


As you can see, the classifications go from the general to the specific, with each classification item being separated by a comma. This is similar to the usage in "Grand Theft Auto." The general type of crime is grand theft, and the more specific type of grand theft is grand theft of an auto. "Grand Theft Firearm" is another common legal code classification.


Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

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A minor addition made by your countryman:

"Grand theft" may be translated into Russian both as "кража в крупном размере" (the value of stolen property exceeds 250,000 rubles*) and "кража в особо крупном размере" (the value of stolen property exceeds one million rubles). See here .

*In Russia, one US dollar equals 65,5 rubles today.

Victor B.

Posted 2016-07-18T20:18:27.460

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