Category Archives: Corpus linguistics & lexicography

When is corpus linguistics (in)appropriate?

I’ve posted the paper that I presented at this year’s Law & Corpus Linguistics Conference at the BYU Law School. It’s titled “Corpus Linguistics in Legal Interpretation: When Is It (In)appropriate.” The abstract is below.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “arms”

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the “Download” button at the top right of the screen.

This post on what arms means will follow the pattern of my post on bear. I’ll start by reviewing what the Supreme Court said about the topic in District of Columbia v. Heller. I’ll then turn to the Oxford English Dictionary for a look at how arms was used over the history of English up through the end of the 18th century, when the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified.. And finally, I’ll discuss the corpus data.

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion had this to say about what arms meant:

The 18th-century meaning [of arms] is no different from the meaning today. The 1773 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘[w]eapons of offence, or armour of defence.’’ Timothy Cunningham’s important 1771 legal dictionary defined ‘‘arms’’ as ‘‘any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.’’ [citations omitted]

As was true of what Scalia said about the meaning of bear, this summary was basically correct as far as it went, but was also a major oversimplification.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep” (part 2)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the “Download” button at the top right of the screen.

In  my last post (longer ago than I care to admit), I offered a very brief introduction to corpus analysis and used corpus data on the word keep as the raw material for a demonstration of corpus analysis in action. One of my reasons for doing that was to talk about the approach to word meaning that I think is appropriate when using corpus linguistics in legal interpretation.

That approach, which is described in my article “A Lawyer’s Introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics” (pdf), is based on work in corpus-based lexicography, and it provides a way of dealing with puzzling fact about language. Many words have multiple possible meanings when they are considered in isolation, but when used in a sentence they are typically unambiguous. The basic insight that grew out of lexicographic corpus analysis is that when a word is used in a given context, what is generally thought of as the meaning of the word in that context is often more appropriately regarded as the meaning of a larger unit consisting of the word together with certain elements of the accompanying text. And it turns out that it is often possible to identify the kinds of contextual elements that are associated with particular meanings.

This has implications for the use of corpus linguistics in legal interpretation, because it can provide guidance in querying the corpus and then sifting and analyzing the data. The key is to look for concordance lines in which the relevant word is used in a context that is grammatically and semantically similar to the context in the legal provision at issue. (For an idea of the kind of similarity I’m talking about, see my analysis of Muscarello v. United States and my post “The semantics of sleeping in railway stations.”)

The approach that I’ve described also has implications for this reexamination of District of Columbia v. Heller. Those implications arise from the fact that at a key point in the decision, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that when bear arms is used to denote activities such as serving as a soldier and fighting in a war, its use is idiomatic. And the approach I’m following provides a way of thinking about idiomaticity that differs from the traditional view of the phenomenon—which was the view underlying this aspect of Heller.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Heller

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the “Download” button at the top right of the screen.

Before I get into the corpus data (next post, I promise), I want to set the stage by talking a bit about the Heller decision. Since the purpose of this series of posts is to show the ways in which the corpus data casts doubt on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of keep and bear arms, I’m going to review the parts of the decision that are most relevant to that purpose. I’m also going to point out several ways in which I think the Court’s linguistic analysis is flawed even without considering the corpus data. Although that wasn’t part of my plans when I began these posts, this project has led me to read Heller more closely than I had done before and therefore to see flaws that had previously escaped my notice. And I think that being aware of those flaws will be important when the time comes to decide whether  and to what extent the data undermines Heller‘s analysis.

The Second Amendment’s structure

As is well known (and as has been discussed previously on Language Log here, here, and here), the Second Amendment is unusual in that it is divided into two distinct parts, which the Court in Heller called the “prefatory clause” and the “operative clause”:

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Preliminaries and caveats

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

Before I get down to the business of discussing the corpus data and its implications for the Supreme Court’s analysis in Heller, I want to say a few things about what this series of posts will and won’t be about, I want to offer some caveats, and I want to outline the sequence that the posts will follow.

What the posts will and won’t be about

These posts are going to focus on the meaning of the phrase keep and bear arms and on the Court’s analysis of that phrase. I won’t be talking about the other parts of the Second Amendment (a well-regulated militia, the security of a free state, the right of the people, and infringed).

The discussion will concentrate on linguistic issues rather legal issues. I won’t be talking about whether the Court’s holding in Heller is correct. I will, however, talk about what my linguistic analysis means for Heller‘s conclusion that the Second Amendment’s text is unambiguous and therefore that the prefatory clause plays no role in the amendment’s interpretation.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Weisberg responds to me; plus update re OED

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

Two quick updates.

First, David Weisberg has replied to my response to his post on the Originalism Blog, but he doesn’t address the point that I made, which was that I disagreed with his framing of the issue.

Weisberg also notes that I didn’t respond to the second point in his original post (which dealt with a purely legal issue), and he goes on to say this:

Many people (and I think Goldfarb is one) believe the correct sense of the 2nd Amend is this: “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, for use in a State’s well regulated Militia, shall not be infringed.” But, if that is what the framers meant, why isn’t that what they wrote? I think that is a very fair question to ask, and it merits an answer. After all, 5 words would have been saved. Will corpus linguistics provide an answer?

I’m not going to offer any views in this series of posts about how I think the Second Amendment as a whole should be interpreted; I’m focusing only on Heller‘s interpretation of the phrase keep and bear arms. So I’m not going to say whether Weisberg is correct in his speculation about what I think on that score. Weisberg then asks why, if the framers had intended to convey the meaning he posits, they didn’t write the amendment in those terms. Although Weisberg thinks that is “a very fair question to ask,” I don’t think it’s a question that’s relevant to the issue as the Court framed it in Heller, which had to do with how the Second Amendment’s text was likely to have been understood by members of the public, not with what the framers intended. Nevertheless, I’ll say that the question to which Weisberg wants an answer is not one that can be answered by corpus linguistics.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: Responding to Weisberg on the meaning of “bear arms”

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here.]

The Originalism Blog has a guest post, by David Weisberg, taking issue with the conclusion in Dennis Baron’s Washington Post op-ed that newly available evidence of historical usage shows that in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia misinterpreted the phrase keep and bear arms. That’s an issue that I wrote about yesterday (“The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment“) and that I’m going to be dealing with in a series of posts over the next several weeks.

One of Weisberg’s arguments concerns a linguistic issue that I’m planning to address, and I think that Weisberg is mistaken. At the risk of getting out ahead of myself, I want to respond to Weisberg briefly now, with a more detailed explanation to come.

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