Category Archives: Corpus linguistics & lexicography

“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.

Hessick:

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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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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What is this thing called law and corpus linguistics?

I recently came across a new paper by Stephen Mouritsen: “Corpus Linguistics in Legal Interpretation—And Evolving Interpretive Framework” (pdf). Judging from the title, you might think that the paper is intended as an introduction to corpus linguistics as an interpretive tool, with the intended audience being lawyers, judges, and law professors. But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

The paper traces the birth and development (so far) of law-and-corpus-linguistics as a field of practice and study. (Hmmm…“field of practice and study”? Doesn’t that sound a little overblown?) Because the paper was written for an audience that was already familiar with corpus linguistics, it doesn’t explain what corpus linguistics is. What it does instead is to give a fairly complete description of the work that has been done so far in this area of inquiry. (No, that’s worse.) It covers what’s happened in the courts, in the legal academy, and in the internet-o-sphere. And with more attention starting to be paid law-and-corpus-linguistics movement (oy), there has been a need for something that will help them get up to speed. This paper fills that need.

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Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics

At the end of my previous post discussing Carissa Hessick’s paper “Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law,” I said that I would follow up with another post “making the affirmative case for the relevance of frequency data in determining ordinary meaning.” This is that post.

Given that subject, you might wonder why I’ve titled this post “Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics.” The answer is that corpus linguistics has not only provided a methodology for investigating meaning, it has also generated important insights about word meaning. (That was the subject of the paper I presented at the BYU symposium in February, which will be published, along with the other papers from the symposium, in a special issue of the BYU Law Review.) I’ll draw on those insights when I talk about frequency analysis, and I thought it would be helpful to make them explicit.

THERE ARE A VARIETY OF DIFFERENT WAYS to think about word meanings. One of them is the way that I see as characteristic of how lawyers and judges tend to think: the meaning of a word is more or less equated with its dictionary definition, and then the definition is in effect read into the statute. If you’ve read a lot of cases, you’ll probably recognize the pattern:

The issue here is what “flood” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines “flood” to mean, “a great flow of water over what is usually dry land.” Therefore, the plaintiffs must show that the water in their basement resulted from a great flow of water over what is usually dry land.

Under this approach, the dictionary entry is treated as if what it defines is the concept flood rather than the word flood. The dictionary entry is being used as stating the conditions determining whether a particular instance of water on the ground qualifies as a flood. Considering the role that dictionaries have come to play in legal interpretation, it is no small irony that many lexicographers would say that the definitions they write aren’t intended to serve that purpose.

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