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The Dictionary Is Not a Fortress: Definitional Fallacies and a Corpus-Based Approach to Plain Meaning


Stephen C. Mouritsen


affiliation not provided to SSRN

February 1, 2011

Brigham Young University Law Review, p. 1915, 2010

Abstract:     
"Plain meaning," said Judge Frank Easterbrook, "as a way to understand language is silly. In interesting cases, meaning is not 'plain'; it must be imputed; and the choice among meanings must have a footing more solid than a dictionary."

This paper proposes an empirical method for determining the "ordinary meaning" of statutory terms; an approach grounded in a linguistic methodology known as Corpus Linguistics. I begin by addressing a number of commonly held, but ultimately erroneous assumptions about the content and structure of dictionaries – assumptions that find their way into judicial reasoning with alarming frequency.

I then outline an approach to the resolution of lexical ambiguity in statutory interpretation – an approach based on Corpus Linguistics methods. Corpus Linguistics is an empirical methodology that analyzes language function and use by means of large electronic databases called corpora. A corpus is a principled collection of naturally occurring language data, typically tagged with grammatical content and searchable in such a way that the ordinary use of a given term in a given context may be ascertained.

Though Corpus Linguistics is not a panacea, the methodology has the potential to remove the determination of ordinary meaning from the black box of the judge's mental impression and render the discussion of the ordinary meaning of statutory terms one of tangible and quantifiable reality.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 65

Keywords: Law and Linguistics, Dictionary, Dictionaries, Statutory Interpretation, Corpus Linguistics, Textualism, Linguistics, Language, Muscarello, Etymology, Condorcet

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Date posted: February 3, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Mouritsen, Stephen C., The Dictionary Is Not a Fortress: Definitional Fallacies and a Corpus-Based Approach to Plain Meaning (February 1, 2011). Brigham Young University Law Review, p. 1915, 2010 . Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1753333

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