Category Archives: Words

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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Some comments on Hessick on corpus linguistics (updated)

UP UNTIL NOW, the use of corpus linguistics in legal interpretation has gotten almost entirely good press—probably because almost all the press it’s gotten has come from its advocates. That situation has now changed, though, with the posting on SSRN of a paper by UNC law professor Carissa Hessick, who was one of the participants at the BYU law-and-corpus-linguistics symposium this past February. (Hessick has blogged about her paper at Prawfsblawg, here and here.)

The paper, “Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law” (pdf), argues that corpus linguistics “is not an appropriate tool” for interpreting statutes. Although it deals specifically with using corpus linguistics in interpreting criminal statutes, and Hessick’s concerns may not be as strong as to other areas of the law, much of her criticism would apply across the board. In this post I am going to discuss some of the issues that the paper raises, and if you’ve followed this blog before, you won’t be surprised to find out that I disagree with Hessick’s conclusion.

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Replying to McGinnis and Rappaport

As I’ve noted, John McGinnis and Mike Rappaport have responded to my post “The language of the law” is not actually a language. They disagree with what I said, and in this post I will return the favor.

McGinnis and Rappaport make two basic points. First, they say that I did not address their argument that The Language of the Law is a technical language and that as a result there is a gap in my analysis. Second, they dispute my argument that the rules of legal interpretation are not analogous to the cognitive processes that underlie comprehension.

The Language of the Law as a technical language

McGinnis and Rappaport accept the point in my earlier post that legal language—or The Language of the Law, to use their preferred term—is not a full-blown language comparable to Hindi or Pirahã. Their paper recognizes that The Language of the Law is “not wholly independent of ordinary language”, and they describe it as “an overlay on ordinary language.” And they don’t take issue with the statement by Peter Tiersma that I quoted: “If we isolate what is distinctive in legal English, leaving out features of ordinary speech, what remains is far too incomplete to function as a language.”

This is important because McGinnis and Rappaport also don’t disagree with my statement that the strong version of their analysis (meaning the version that assumes a “wide conception” of language) relies on their analogy between The Language of the Law and ordinary language. So in order to defend that portion of their argument, it’s essential for McGinnis and Rappaport to show that their analogy is valid. I don’t think they’ve done so.

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Comprehension, ordinary meaning, and linguistics

In my first language-of-the-law post the other day, I talked about the fact that the words interpret and interpretation are polysemous—they can be used in multiple different ways that are related to one another: they can be used to refer both to the conscious process of deliberation that underlies legal interpretation and to the automatic and effortless cognitive processes that underlie the comprehension of utterances and texts. And I said that although it’s not unusual to use those word in both ways, in the context of discussing legal interpretation the can be to obscure the fact that the processes differ. As a result, I prefer to use interpret and its derivatives only with respect to legal interpretation, and to use the words comprehend and comprehension to refer to the cognitive processes by which utterances and texts are understood.

It occurred to me that this would provide a good lead for me to discuss some of the assumptions that underlie my efforts to apply linguistics to legal interpretation. I’m going to do that now, and I’m going to do it by drawing on (and adapting) something that I wrote as part of a book proposal.

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“The language of the law” is not actually a language

THE NATURE OF LEGAL LANGUAGE has been a recurring subject of discussion, within applied linguistics and (U.S.) legal academia. The latest contribution to that discussion is a recently-posted draft paper by John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport, titled The Constitution and the Language of the Law. (h/t Legal Theory Blog)

McGinnis and Rappaport are the primary advocates of an approach to constitutional interpretation known as original-methods originalism, under which courts today are to apply the interpretive methods that prevailed at the time of the framing (pdf). Their new paper argues that original-methods originalism is supported by the fact that (as they see it), the Constitution is written in “the language of the law.”

Although Larry Solum, of Legal Theory Blog, calls the paper “important and brilliant,” I’m afraid that I find its primary argument to be pretty seriously flawed. [UPDATE: McGinnis and Rappaport have responded to this post, and I have replied to their response.]

I’m going to talk here about two related aspects of the paper that I think are problematic. One is its treatment of “the language of the law” (a phrase that I will henceforth capitalize whenever I use it in the way that McGinnis and Rappaport do). McGinnis and Rappaport come close to treating The Language of the Law as a full-blown language on the order of French and Japanese, which I don’t think is justified by the facts. The other major problem that I see lies in the analogy that the paper draws between the rules of legal interpretation and what it calls the “interpretive rules” of ordinary language (which are better described as the cognitive processes involved in the comprehension of utterances and texts). This analogy, which plays a key role in McGinnis and Rappaport’s argument, is invalid because each of the things that they are analogizing is fundamentally dissimilar from the other.

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The Supreme Court’s misinterpretation of the word “because”

[This post has been revised; see my note at the bottom.]

The post before this one, dealing with the dueling canons in Lockhart v. United States, was my first after a gap of more than two years. In my last post before that gap, I wrote about an amicus brief I had just filed in the Supreme Court in Nassar v. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The brief dealt with the meaning of the construction because of X. Specifically, it dealt with whether that construction incorporates the notion of but-for causation as part of its meaning. My brief argued that it does not.

The Supreme Court had previously reached the opposite conclusion, in a case involving the Age Discrimination in Employment Act: Gross v. FBL Financial Services. In Nassar, the question was whether the holding in Gross should be extended to a different statute that similarly used the formulation because of X. I argued that the Court should not follow Gross because Gross had been wrong about what because means. Some might regard such an argument as quixotic; I preferred to think of it as audacious.

The core of my argument was based on real-world sentences like Example (1) (emphasis added):

(1) The Constitution abhors clas­sifications based on race, not only because those classifications can harm favored races or are based on illegitimate motives, but also because every time the gov­ernment places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.

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But I did it, though, because he lied / Because he took you for a ride / And because time was on his side / And because I…

IWantYouBobDylanI filed another amicus brief in the Supreme Court last week that I regard as an example of using linguistics in legal argument. Although the brief contains no discussion of linguistics, it was enabled by the fact that I have learned, to a certain extent, how to think like a linguist.

The case is University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, and it deals with employment discrimination. The linguistic issue that the brief deals with is the interpretation of prohibitions against discrimination “because of [the employee’s] age” or “because [the employee] has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” In particular, does the use of the word because in these provisions require the plaintiff to prove that the prohibited factor was what’s known in the law as a “but for” cause of the adverse action? Or is it enough for the plaintiff to prove that the prohibited factor was one of several motivations for the action, any one of which would have been sufficient on its own?

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