Category Archives: Psycholinguistics

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 exclusion 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. And those 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. And 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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