Linguistics and Legislative Intent

40 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2014 Last revised: 3 Apr 2015

Date Written: July 24, 2014


This Article counters one argument for disregarding legislative intent in the interpretation of statutes: the argument from public choice theory. As Kenneth Shepsle helpfully summarized this argument, “Congress is a ‘they,’ not an ‘it.’” That is, since many legislators make up Congress, and since their intents in voting on a particular proposal may vary widely, Congress has no unified “legislative intent.” Consequently, the notion of “legislative intent” is meaningless.

Drawing upon new research in linguistics, this Article argues that identifying legislative intent is no harder than identifying individual intent — the practice used in the interpretation of contracts, wills, and other single-authored texts. Indeed, the very same public choice problems identified by Shepsle commonly exist in the interpretation of vague language generally. Therefore, from the perspective of public choice, legislative intent and individual intent must stand or fall together. Because we have powerful reasons for resorting to individual intent in the course of legal interpretation, the use of both intents must stand.

Keywords: linguistics, legislative intent, semantics, legal interpretation, public choice theory

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Grinsell, Timothy, Linguistics and Legislative Intent (July 24, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Timothy Grinsell (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

Department of Linguistics
1010 E. 59th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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