While the words are pronounced the same, they do have different meanings. Martial is an adjective that describes things related to war. A marshal is a police or military officer. Martial can only be used as an adjective, but marshal can be used as either a noun or a verb, but not an adjective. “But what about marshall?” you ask? We’ll get to that in a little bit.
You’ll mostly see martial in noun phrases like martial law and martial arts. Martial law refers to the military taking over a country’s government, usually in times of emergency. Martial arts is a term that encompasses all sorts of hand-to-hand combat disciplines, including karate, judo, capoeira, and even wrestling.
The word court-martial refers to a military judicial proceeding. Because court-martial came into English from French, it has a very unusual plural form: courts-martial.
A marshal is a highly placed officer. For example, a fire marshal is someone in an official position to enforce fire prevention laws. An air marshal is an official who provides undercover security on an airplane, and who can make arrests when needed.
The US Marshals are a federal law enforcement agency. They’re frequently depicted in old Western films as the top law enforcement officers in a frontier town. A marshal can also be the person in charge of or at the head of a parade.
As a verb, marshal means to organize forces or resources, or to place them in order, as when getting ready for a parade or a military campaign.
What About Marshall?
We didn’t forget. If you see someone use marshall in place of martial or marshal, it’s a misspelling. Marshall is only really used as a proper name, as in “former Chief Justice John Marshall,” or the Marshall Islands.