Linguistic Issues in Statutory Interpretation
Oxford Handbook of Language and Law, Peter M. Tiersma, Lawrence M. Solan, eds., 2012
23 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2011
Date Written: October 27, 2011
Each time a dispute arises over the proper interpretation of a law, it means that the legal system has somehow failed to provide clear guidance as to how people must behave and what rights they have against others who wrong them. This chapter explores what things go wrong linguistically that lead to interpretive problems. This approach is interesting because the results of the inquiry show that many aspects of our linguistic knowledge cause very few interpretive problems, but that others, especially the problem of borderline situations in the interpretation of statutory words, present constant difficulty. Word meaning, in turn, is generally flexible enough in ordinary life to enable us to incorporate new situations into categories that we have already formed, permitting us to organize our worlds efficiently. When interpretive dilemmas are explored in this manner, we see that statutory interpretation works quite well most of the time, but that certain problems are predictably recurrent ones. While the problems that arise may be conceptual and linguistic in nature, the solutions must be political and legal ones.
Keywords: statutes, vagueness, ambiguity, cognition
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