The Limited Relevance of Plain Meaning

12 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2016

See all articles by Stephen F. Ross

Stephen F. Ross

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law

Date Written: 1995


In this essay, the author takes the position that linguists' principal expertise - ascertaining how language is used by ordinary speakers of English - is often of little value in interpreting controversial non-criminal federal statutes. Although linguistic techniques might still aid in understanding their meaning, the author's thesis is that extrinsic evidence that is known and accessible to this small sub-community - such as legislative history, established norms of construction, and other evidence about the context in which the legislation arose - is more likely than linguistic analysis to help an outside judge shed light on what Congress meant and how the statute is to be understood. Rather than serving as the principal means of interpretation, a statute's ordinary meaning should be a weal, tie-breaking default factor in most cases, to be used only when the judge cannot confidently interpret the statute based on extrinsic indicia of the legislation's meaning as understood by legislators and those actually subject to the legislation.

Suggested Citation

Ross, Stephen F., The Limited Relevance of Plain Meaning (1995). Penn State Law Research Paper, 1995, Washington Law Review, Vol. 73, Available at SSRN:

Stephen F. Ross (Contact Author)

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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