Category Archives: Judges and justices

Corpora and the Second Amendment: Heller

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

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: 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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The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment

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

It was only three weeks ago that BYU Law School made available two corpora that are intended to provide corpus-linguistic resources for researching the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution. And already the corpora are yielding results that could be very important.

The two corpora are COFEA (the Corpus of Founding Era American English) and COEME (the Corpus of Early Modern English). As I’ve previously explained, COFEA consists of almost 139 million words, drawn from more than 95,000 texts from the period 1760–1799, and COEME consists of 1.28 billion words, from 40,000 texts dating to the period 1475–1800. (The two corpora can be accessed here.)

Within a day after COFEA and COEME became available, Dennis Baron looked at data from the two corpora, to see what they revealed about the meaning of the key phrase in the Second Amendment: keep and bear arms. (Baron was one of the signatories to the linguists’ amicus brief in District of Columbia v. Heller.) He announced his findings here on Language Log, in a comment on my post about the corpora’s unveiling:

Sorry, J. Scalia, you got it wrong in Heller. I just ran “bear arms” through BYU’s EMne [=Early Modern English] and Founding Era American English corpora, and of about 1500 matches (not counting the duplicates), all but a handful are clearly military.

Two weeks later, Baron published an opinion piece in the Washington Post, titled “Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms’,” in which he repeated the point he had made in his comment, and elaborated on it a little. Out of “about 1,500 separate occurrences of ‘bear arms’ in the 17th and 18th centuries,” he said, “only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action.” Based on that fact, Baron said that the two corpora “confirm that the natural meaning of ‘bear arms’ in the framers’ day was military.”

My interest having been piqued, I decided to check out the corpus data myself.

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Dennis Baron (in WaPo) on corpus linguistics and “bearing arms”

The Washington Post published an opinion piece earlier today by Dennis Baron, with the self-explanatory title “Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms.’” The crux of the article:

By Scalia’s logic, the natural meaning of “bear arms” is simply to carry a weapon and has nothing to do with armies. He explained in his opinion: “Although [bear arms] implies that the carrying of the weapon is for the purpose of ‘offensive or defensive action,’ it in no way connotes participation in a structured military organization. From our review of founding-era sources, we conclude that this natural meaning was also the meaning that ‘bear arms’ had in the 18th century. In numerous instances, ‘bear arms’ was unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia.”

But Scalia was wrong. Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare — they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

The two corpora that Baron used were made available for public use (in beta versions) about two weeks ago; more information about them is available in my post about their public unveiling, “The BYU Law corpora.” Baron (who had joined in the linguistics professors’ amicus brief in Heller) was quick to take advantage of these corpora, and on May 7 he posted this comment on that post (on Language Log):

Sorry, J. Scalia, you got it wrong in Heller. I just ran “bear arms” through BYU’s EMne [=Early Modern English] and Founding Era American English corpora, and of about 1500 matches (not counting the duplicates), all but a handful are clearly military.

Since I thought that this news deserved more attention than it would was likely to get in the comment thread, I did a separate post about it: “‘bear arms’ in the BYU Law corpora.” All of which is to say, you read it here first.

 

[Cross-posted on Language Log.]

 

 

 

 

“bear arms” in the BYU Law corpora

[Cross-posted from Language Log]

In the comments [at Language Log] on my recent post “The BYU Law corpora,” Dennis Baron writes:

Sorry, J. Scalia, you got it wrong in Heller. I just ran “bear arms” through BYU’s EMne [=Early Modern English] and Founding Era American English corpora, and of about 1500 matches (not counting the duplicates), all but a handful are clearly military.

Baron was one of the signatories to the linguists’ amicus brief in Heller.

Update:

In the comments [on this post at Language Log], Ben Zimmer links to Baron’s article, “Guns and Grammar: the Linguistics of the Second Amendment,” which provides some details about the argument in that brief.

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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SCOTUS cites CGEL (props to Justice Gorsuch and the Supreme Court Library)

When grammatical questions come up in cases, the lawyers and judges will want to support their arguments and analyses with citations to books about grammar. Most of the time, they cite books intended for a general audience, such as the McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, The Elements of Grammar, Strunk & White, and various books by Bryan Garner; and books intended for lawyers, such as The Grammar and Writing Handbook for Lawyers and (again) various books by Bryan Garner.

Unfortunately, none of those books gives an adequate description of English grammar, which is a subject that is much more complex than most people realize. If you’re looking for a book that can speak about the subject reliably and with authority, the leading candidates are two books that are both known by the initials CGEL.

One is the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), whose main co-authors are Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. The other is the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. If you’re dubious about my statement regarding the complexity of English grammar, you should note that both of these books are enormous: the text of Huddleston & Pullum exceeds 1,700 pages, and Quirk et al.’s exceeds 1,600 pages. If you ever have occasion to hold a copy of either book in your hands, be careful not to drop it on your toes.

Up until today, Huddleston & Pullum had been cited by U.S. courts 24 times, and Quirk et al., 12 times. The courts in question included the federal courts of appeals for the Fifth and Sixth Circuits and the supreme courts of Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. But not the U.S. Supreme Court.

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