'Always Speaking?': Interpreting the Present Tense in Statutes

Canadian Journal of Linguistics, Forthcoming

29 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2013 Last revised: 29 Jan 2017

Date Written: December 24, 2012


This article takes a critical look through the lens of linguistics at the “always-speaking” principle in law — an influential principle that is recited in materials on legislative drafting as the justification for using the present tense, adopted in many common-law jurisdictions as a principle of interpretation, and accepted as a foundation for the linguistic analysis of the use of tense in statutes. The article concludes that the principle is an inadequate basis for interpreting or analysing statutes, for at least two reasons: (i) the interpretive results that the principle is intended to support are explainable in terms of widely accepted principles in the analysis of tense, without any need to posit special principles that apply only to statutes; and (ii) the interpretations that would be required if the always-speaking principle were taken seriously would in many cases probably be regarded as unnatural by native speakers of English.

Suggested Citation

Goldfarb, Neal, 'Always Speaking?': Interpreting the Present Tense in Statutes (December 24, 2012). Canadian Journal of Linguistics, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2193556

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