Category Archives: Psycholinguistics

Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep and bear arms” (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.

COFEA and COEME: lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This post will complete my analysis of the Second Amendment—for now. So far, I’ve focused almost entirely on the Second Amendment’s specification of the right that it protected—the right of the people, to keep and bear Arms—and have said little or nothing about well regulated or militia. That doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about those expressions, it just means that I’ll defer that discussion until sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, here in the present, this post will try to answer the question that I raised in the last post: whether the Supreme Court was right in saying that the fact that bear arms appears in the phrase keep and bear arms means that bear arms couldn’t have been used in its idiomatic military sense:

[If bear arms were given its idiomatic meaning,] the phrase “keep and bear arms” would be incoherent. The word “Arms” would have two different meanings at once: “weapons” (as the object of “keep”) and (as the object of “bear”) one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying “He filled and kicked the bucket” to mean “He filled the bucket and died.” Grotesque.

It’s true that interpreting bear arms as having been used idiomatically would mean that arms conveys two different meanings (a phenomenon known as copredication). But as explained in my last post, that doesn’t rule out such an interpretation. Now, in this post, I’ll argue that interpreting bear arms in that way is more than just a theoretical possibility. I’ll discuss evidence that makes it reasonable to think keep and bear arms was intended to convey such a meaning, and that such an interpretation would have been more likely than the alternative.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep and bear arms” (Part 1) (updated)

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.

COFEA and COEME: lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This was supposed to be the final entry in my series of posts on the Second Amendment, but I’ve decided to split the discussion into two parts.

In my last post, I concluded that as used in the Second Amendment, bear arms was most likely understood to mean ‘serve in the militia.’ The question that I’ll address here and in my next post is whether that conclusion is changed by the fact that the Second Amendment protects not simply “the right of the people to bear arms” but “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

The corpus data on keep and bear arms is of no help in answering that question, because all the uses of the phrase in the data are either from the Second Amendment or from drafts of proposals for what became the Second Amendment. Therefore, I won’t deal with the corpus data at all in this post, and I’ll deal with only a relative handful of concordance lines in the next one (though those lines will play an important role in the analysis).

Taken together, these two posts will provide an extended rebuttal of the portion of Heller (consisting of only four sentences) that raised the question that these posts will address. Those four sentences were part of the court’s argument that bear arms as used in the Second Amendment couldn’t possibly have been understood in its idiomatic military sense:

[If bear arms were given its idiomatic meaning,] the phrase “keep and bear arms” would be incoherent. The word “Arms” would have two different meanings at once: “weapons” (as the object of “keep”) and (as the object of “bear”) one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying “He filled and kicked the bucket” to mean “He filled the bucket and died.” Grotesque.

When I first read Heller, this struck me as a pretty strong argument. But I’ve rethought the issue since then, and have come to think that the argument is seriously flawed. At this point, although I don’t dismiss the argument altogether, I don’t think it rules out interpreting bear arms in the Second Amendment to mean ‘serve in the militia.’

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More on the dueling canons

After further thought about my dueling-canons post, I have a few additional points that I need make. And also a special offer for law-review staff members.

First, I have to make a correction. I spoke too broadly when I said that Reading Law didn’t cite anything in the prior caselaw to show that there existed such a thing as the Series-Qualifier Canon. The book does cite cases stating that when an adjective appears before a series of nouns, it is generally understood to modify all the items. It also cites cases that can be read to state an analogous proposition with respect to adverbs and verbs. And it cites cases that reach results consistent with those propositions, but without making any broad generalizations. So I shouldn’t have said there was no support in the caselaw for the Series-Qualifier Canon as it relates to modifiers that precede the items they modify.

However, the situation is different as to modifiers that follow the items they modify. In the cases that are cited that involved such constructions, the decision was based narrowly on the specifics of the particular statute, not on general statements about how such constructions are generally understood. In fact two of the cases cited the Rule of the Last Antecedent, but interpreted the modifier as having a wider scope based on other factors—as the Rule recognizes is possible. So not only do those cases not support the Series-Qualifier Canon with respect to postmodification, but they provide further evidence that the carve-out from the Nearest-Reasonable-Referent Canon is not justified by the caselaw.

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Coming to SCOTUS: Battle of the dueling interpretive canons. [Updated]

THE CANONS OF LEGAL INTERPRETATION are pithy sayings setting out various ways in which statutes should or should not be interpreted:

Every word in a statute should be given effect.
Expressio unius est exclusio alterius (the expression of one thing suggests the exclusion of others).
Ejusdem generis (interpret a general term to reflect the class of objects reflected in more specific terms accompanying it).
Statutes should be presumed not to apply extraterritorially.
and so forth.

Karl Llewellyn, a prominent mid-20th century legal scholar, famously said that “there are two opposing canons on almost every point.” On November 3, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Lockhart v. United States, a case that presents about as stark a clash between opposing canons as you could ever hope to find.

Lockhart is of interest to us here at LAWnLinguistics because the canons at issue are among the small group of “linguistic canons”—those that deal with language-related issues. In particular, they deal with resolving ambiguities that arise as a result of the statutory language having more than one plausible syntactic structure. I dealt at some length with the general issue of syntactic ambiguity, and with the specific canons that are now at issue in Lockhart, in my multipart look at Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and legal-writing guru Bryan Garner. (Of my previous posts about the book the ones most relevant here are Syntactic ambiguity, Three syntactic canons, On Garner on Posner on Scalia & Garner, and Last antecedents, series qualifiers, and psycholinguistics.)

In those posts (particularly the last three) I criticized several aspects of how Reading Law treated the canons that are now at issue in Lockhart. Some of those criticisms, as well as others that have occurred to me as I’ve thought about Lockhart, are pertinent to the legal issues in the case. And more broadly, as I’ve continued to think about Reading Law’s handling of the syntactic canons, I’ve come to believe that the framework established by Reading Law is not merely problematic, but deeply flawed. As it turns out, Lockhart provides a good lens through which those flaws can be examined.

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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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