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?

8 Answers 8


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
  • 67
    @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
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 21:01
  • 35
    Legal 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
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 22:38
  • 11
    @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
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 0:18
  • 9
    It's also worth considering that the alternative form is used too e.g. "first degree murder" (and not "murder first degree").
    – JBentley
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 0:23
  • 8
    @JBently I believe "murder in the first degree" is quite common, though.
    – KChaloux
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 12:31

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.

  • 28
    Why 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
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 23:49
  • 5
    @Catija They would find you odd, not "it".
    – Kaz
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 1:13
  • 6
    ... same thing. It is not standard and it would not be accepted outside of very specific instances.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 2:38
  • 3
    We do it all the time with geography too - Lake Michigan, Lake Tahoe, Gulf of Mexico, Mount Rushmore.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 17:36
  • 10
    An 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
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 17:54

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.


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.


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.

  • 1
    Stealing 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
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:35
  • 2
    Not 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
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:39
  • 1
    Ah, so grand means different things if applied to different nouns.
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:43
  • 1
    Yes 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
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 20:52
  • 1
    It'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
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 21:36

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.


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.


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.

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