Category Archives: Corpus linguistics and statutory interpretation

“Empirical” doesn’t necessarily mean “definitively verifiable”

Carissa Hessick and I have been debating the appropriateness of using empirical methods in legal interpretation. The debate began on PrawfsBlawg, then moved over here (with some continued discussion at Prawfs), and then spread to Twitter. The relevant tweets are collected in my previous post, and in this post I’ll respond to Hessick’s most recent points.

As I understand her, Hessick contends that the issue of ordinary meaning isn’t an “empirical question” because the question of how a reasonable person would understand the text is inherently qualitative rather than quantitative, and therefore can’t be answered in a way that is “provable or verifiable.” I accept Hessick’s characterization of the ordinary-meaning issue as being qualitative rather than quantitative, but it doesn’t follow that quantitative information is always irrelevant.

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Corpus linguistics and empiricism: A Twitter exchange

My last post, Corpus linguistics: Empiricism and frequency, prompted a Twitter exchange between Carissa Hessick and me, a lightly edited version of which I present here.


One question based on my quick read:  Do you think most people would understand “relying on linguistic intuition” to be an empirical undertaking?  I appreciate the insight into how people’s linguistic intuitions are formed.  But don’t most people think that, if something is an empirical question, that means there is a demonstrably correct answer?

And if we often have different intuitions about what a word means (as the split decisions on ordinary meaning illustrate), and if judges resolve the Q of ordinary meaning by consulting their own intuitions, then how can ordinary meaning be an empirical Q? If I have one intuition and you have another, then how to we demonstrate which is correct and which is incorrect?

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Corpus linguistics: Empiricism and frequency

This is the second in a series of posts about the essentially final version of Carissa Hessick’s article Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law. The first post dealt mainly with Hessick’s views about how corpus linguistics relates to ultimate purpose of legal interpretation, which is to determine the legal meaning of the text in dispute. This time around, I’ll be discussing her claim that incorporating corpus linguistics into legal interpretation would radically transform the process of determining the text’s ordinary meaning:

Corpus linguistics reframes the “plain” or “ordinary” meaning inquiry in two ways. First, it claims that ordinary meaning is an empirical question. Second, it tells us that this empirical question ought to be answered by how frequently a term is used in a particular way. Both of these analytical moves represent significant departures from current theories of statutory interpretation, including textualism, and they render statutory interpretation essentially unrecognizable.

This statement is a mixed bag. In one respect, it’s correct. Those who support the use of corpus linguistics in legal interpretation do regard ordinary meaning as an empirical question—or at least as involving empirical questions. In a different respect, it is partly correct but oversimplified. Analysis of frequency data is in fact central to corpus linguistics, but it is not necessarily decisive, and in some cases (perhaps in many cases) it will not be helpful at all. And in a  third respect, Hessick’s statement is wrong. Neither the empiricism of corpus linguistics nor the attention it pays to frequency represents a “significant departure” from existing interpretive theories.

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Artis v. District of Columbia, part 2: Units of meaning and dictionary definitions

Sometimes, it’s immediately obvious from the opinions that a case raises questions about interpretation that are interesting, important, or both. Smith v. United States, in which the question was whether trading a handgun for drugs amounts to “using” it, is a classic example. At first glance, the Supreme Court’s decision in Artis v. District of Columbia  doesn’t seem to be in that category. It doesn’t offer interesting linguistic issues that call attention to themselves, except for someone who is familiar with the work of the linguist John Sinclair and the lexicographer Patrick Hanks. But with some digging, Artis yields some issues that I think are  interesting and significant, having to do with new approaches to analyzing questions of word meaning and with how not to use dictionaries.

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Responding further to Hessick on corpus linguistics (The first in a series)

Carissa Hessick has recently posted a near-final version of her forthcoming article Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law, which will appear in  a special issue of the B.Y.U. Law Review devoted to the papers that were presented at the law-and-corpus-linguistics conference at Brigham Young about a year ago. Like the draft that Hessick posted in September, the new version argues against the use of corpus linguistics in statutory interpretation. And although the article deals specifically with the use of corpus linguistics in criminal cases, Hessick acknowledges that some of her criticisms may apply more broadly.

I blogged about the previous draft, outlining some of my disagreements with Hessick’s position, and also offered some comments in response to her trio of posts about corpus linguistics at PrawfsBlawg (link, link, link). My disagreements apply equally to the revised version.

In this post, I’ll have some further things to say about Hessick’s portrayal of corpus linguistics as “a radical break from current interpretive theories.” The targets of that claim are Stephen Mouritsen and Utah Supreme Court Justice Lee. But as I’ll discuss, Mouritsen disputes Hessick’s reading of both his individual work and the work he and Lee have done together. (Justice Lee has so far maintained radio silence; perhaps he and Mouritsen will respond to Hessick in their forthcoming article in the Yale Law Journal [draft].) And in two or three posts that will follow this one, I’ll address some of the other aspects of Hessick’s argument. (Part 2 is here.)

HESSICK’S THESIS HASN’T CHANGED SIGNIFICANTLY between her original draft and the revised version. So the new draft, like the previous one, paints what I believe is an inaccurate picture of how corpus linguistics relates to statutory interpretation, and of the views and goals of corpus linguistics’s proponents.

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More on the relevance of frequency data: Responding to Steinberg

In a comment on one of Carissa Hessick’s posts about corpus linguistics at Prawfsblawg, Asher Steinberg expressed the view that relying on frequency data in deciding issues of ordinary meaning is misguided. (Steinberg blogs at The Narrowest Grounds, where he frequently writes intelligently about statutory interpretation.) Shortly after that, I posted Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics here, in which I explained why I believe that frequency data can in fact be relevant in doing legal interpretation. And that post prompted a long comment by Steinberg, elaborating on his objection to using frequency data in legal interpretation.

Steinberg fears that if the courts were to draw on corpus linguistics in the way I that I advocate, statutory interpretation would “fall into fundamental error[.]”His point of departure is my analysis of the corpus data regarding the issue raised by Muscarello v. United States—whether driving somewhere with a gun in the trunk or glove compartment counts as carrying a firearm. (My conclusions are briefly summarized in the post Steinberg comments on; for the full analysis, see my forthcoming article A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics (henceforth, A Lawyer’s Introduction)) Steinberg argues that frequency data—or at least the kind of frequency data that my analysis is based on— is inherently unreliable as evidence of ordinary meaning.

I beg to differ.

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Another judicial endorsement of corpus linguistics

On Facebook, Stephen Mouritsen writes, “Justice Christine Durham [of the Utah Supreme Court] finally comes around to corpus linguistics . . . and then promptly retires. (Oh well. A win’s a win.)”

Mouritsen is referring to this, from footnote 9 in Justice Durham’s concurrence in Fire Insurance Exchange v. Oltmanns, 2017 UT 81 [paragraph break added]:

Even though we place great trust in a judge’s discernment, a “judge’s confidence in her linguistic intuition may be misplaced. . . . Though the human language faculty is very good at assessing which meanings are linguistically permissible in a given context, human intuition is less successful in selecting the most common meaning or common understanding.” Stephen C. Mouritsen, Hard Cases and Hard Data: Assessing Corpus Linguistics as an Empirical Path to Plain Meaning, 13 Colum. Sci. & Tech. L. Rev. 156, 160–61 (2012) [hereinafter Mouritsen, Hard Cases]. When terms are to “be interpreted according to their ordinary meaning, they implicate a set of empirical questions, many of which are amenable to different types of linguistic analysis. . . . [I]n the field of corpus linguistics, scholars . . . determine . . . those meanings that are consistent with common usage,” or “the term’s ordinary or most frequent meaning” based on empirical data rather than personal intuition. Id. at 161.

These tools for empirical analysis are readily available to lawyers and should be used when appropriate. See, e.g., Rasabout, 2015 UT 72, ¶¶ 57–134, (Lee, J., concurring); In re Adoption of Baby E.Z., 2011 UT 38, ¶¶ 86–105, 266 P.3d 702 (Lee, A.C.J., concurring); Brief for the Project On Government Oversight et al. as Amici Curiae Supporting Petitioners, FCC v. AT&T, Inc., 562 U.S. 397 (2011) (No. 09-1279) [link – NG]; 2017 BYU Law Review Symposium, Law & Corpus Linguistics, 2017 B.Y.U. L. Rev. (forthcoming),; Neal Goldfarb, Words, Meanings, Corpora: A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics, 2017 B.Y.U. L. REV. (forthcoming),; Stephen C. Mouritsen, The Dictionary is Not a Fortress: Definitional Fallacies and a Corpus-Based Approach to Plain Meaning, 2010 B.Y.U. L. REV. 1915; Mouritsen, Hard Cases, supra; Daniel Ortner, The Merciful Corpus: The Rule of Lenity, Ambiguity and Corpus Linguistics, 25 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 101 (2016); James C. Phillips, Daniel Ortner, & Thomas Lee, Corpus Linguistics & Original Public Meaning: A New Tool to Make Originalism More Empirical, 126 Yale L.J. Forum 20 (2016); Neal Goldfarb, LAWN LINGUISTICS, (last visited May 16, 2017) (discussing many contemporary issues regarding corpus linguistics and the law and providing links to various online tools and resources).