Category Archives: Prescriptivism

#GorsuchDictionaries: Into the lexicographic weeds (updated, and updated again)

Note: If you’re coming back to this post after having read it already, be sure to note the additional update I’ve added, which comes right after the discussion that dates the W2 definition back to 1934.

A new hashtag popped up last week, #GorsuchStyle, devoted to spoofing Justice Gorsuch’s writing style, or at least the style that is on display in the opening sentences of his dissenting opinion in  Artis v. District of Columbia (pdf): “Chesterton reminds us not to clear away a fence just because we cannot see its point. Even if a fence doesn’t seem to have a reason, sometimes all that means is we need to look more carefully for the reason it was built in the first place.”

I mention that, not because this post will be about Gorsuch’s writing style (it won’t), but because I’m not above a little clickbait-y coattail-riding. It’s not gratuitous clickbait, mind you. This post is about Gorsuch’s dissent in Artis. And it remains to be seen whether it’s effective clickbait. Part of me thinks that if your title includes the word lexicographic, maybe you’re doing clickbait wrong. On the other hand, #AppellateTwitter likes dictionaries, so maybe not.

What this post will be about is Gorsuch’s choice of dictionaries to cite in his Artis dissent. As the title suggests, it will be heavy on lexicography, but it will also touch on what that choice says about whether Gorsuch is a snoot, like his predecessor was, and if so whether that ought to play a role in his decision about what dictionaries to cite. I also plan on doing a separate post to talk about the contrasting approaches to word meaning that are on display in Artis, both of them resonating, though in opposite ways, with what I’ve written about that subject (link, link).

As you may have gathered know if you’re familiar with some of the things I’ve written about word meaning, I’m not a big fan of the central role that dictionaries play in the way lawyers, judges, and legal scholars deal with issues of word meaning. For this post, though, I’ll put that dissatisfaction aside, and will treat the use of dictionaries as perfectly appropriate interpretive tools.

THE ISSUE of which dictionary to use is a recurring one in the academic literature about judges’ use of dictionaries. It’s usually discussed under the rubric of “dictionary shopping”—the practice of looking for the definitions that are most supportive of the result you want to reach. That practice is of course the norm for lawyers arguing cases, but it’s problematic for judges or legal scholars, who aren’t supposed to start out with a preferred outcome and then reason backward to the arguments that can support it. However, there is at least one circumstance in which selectiveness about the dictionaries that one cites can be appropriate: when the purpose of citing the dictionary is merely to show that a particular reading of the word in question is possible. And in fact that was Gorsuch’s purpose in relying on the definitions he cited; he was arguing that the statute was ambiguous.

Nevertheless, Gorsuch’s dictionary choices in Artis are subject to some significant criticisms in terms of what might be called lexicographic relevance; the definitions he relies on don’t necessarily shed much light on the meaning of the statutory language that was in dispute. And in that respect, the dissent is not the first time that judges have gone lexicographically astray.

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Last antecedents, series qualifiers, and psycholinguistics

In my post Three syntactic canons, I discussed the three canons of interpretation in Scalia and Garner’s Reading Law that deal with syntactic ambiguities:

Last-Antecedent Canon. A pronoun, relative pronoun, or demonstrative adjective generally refers to the nearest reasonable antecedent.

Series-Qualifier Canon. When there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies to the entire series.

Nearest-Reasonable-Referent Canon. When the syntax involves something other than a parallel series of nouns or verbs, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent.

At the end of the post, I raised the question whether the preferences stated in these canons can be justified on purely linguistic grounds—i.e., whether they represent “valid generalization[s] about how expressions in English are understood[.]” I’m going to try to answer that question here.

This post is a long one, so let me say up front that the verdict on these canons is a mixed one. The good news is that in some categories of cases where these canons apply, there is in fact a linguistic justification for applying them, by which I mean that in those applications the canons more or less parallel one of the recognized tendencies in how people process and comprehend sentences. (The same parallel applies to the rule of the last antecedent as it’s generally applied by the courts, which differs somewhat from the Scalia–Garner version).

Now the bad news. First, the processing tendency that I’ve referred to is just one of the factors that  influences how a given sentence is understood, and other factors can exert an influence in a different direction. So even in cases where the canons are consistent with this processing tendency, it’s hard to say in advance whether applying the canons would result in a linguistically justified interpretation.

Second, in the canons’ other applications, I don’t think there is the same parallel between the canons and the kinds of processing tendencies that I’ve referred to above. And more than that, in a large subset of those applications, the canons are actually inconsistent with what the literature on processing tendencies would predict. In those applications, therefore, there is reason to think that applying the canons would result in interpretations that are linguistically unjustified.

On to the details.

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Prescriptivist Statutory Interpretation? (Part 2 of Scalia and Garner on Statutory Interpretation)

[Part 1 here.]

For most people who consult Scalia and Garner’s new book on statutory interpretation (I say “consult” because few people are going to read it straight through), Bryan Garner’s name on the cover will lend additional credibility to the book’s discussion of grammar and linguistic meaning. After all, he’s the Guru of Writing and Language. But to what extent is his background and expertise actually relevant to the process of interpreting a text whose meaning is disputed? My answer to that question is, less than you might think.

Let me start by focusing here on the relevance of Garner’s grammar-related work to the kinds of grammatical issues that come up in interpreting statutes; I’ll save for a later post my examination of his work as a lexicographer and how that relates to resolving disputes over word meaning.

Most of Garner’s work is devoted to giving advice about how to write, and most of it deals with topics such as these, which are irrelevant to statutory interpretation: