Patterns in Language and Law

International Journal of Language & Law, Vol. 6, pp. 46, 2017

Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper No. 520

22 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2017

Date Written: August 25, 2017


Our language faculty is rule-like in some ways, pattern-like in others, as Steven Pinker (1999) has shown. Much of syntax is describable a set of rules, whereas the range of meanings attributed to a word is best described in terms of patterns. Laws are typically written as rules, but they are written in words, many of which display pattern-like arrays of usage. Legal systems default to an expression’s “ordinary meaning,” requiring estimates of patterns of usage. Recently, advances in corpus linguistics have been adduced by judges and legal scholars in this regard. Furthermore, open-textured legal terms, including the word “pattern” itself, are by their nature more describable in terms of patterns of their application than in terms of hard-and-fast rules. Apart from linguistic issues in legal interpretation, legal systems value coherence, requiring that like things be treated alike, often focusing on patterns of how laws are applied. At times, however, these patterns uncover biases in a law’s application. This article attempts to describe how this duality in both linguistic description law interact with each other.

Keywords: linguistics, patterns, rules, standards, corpus

Suggested Citation

Solan, Lawrence M., Patterns in Language and Law (August 25, 2017). International Journal of Language & Law, Vol. 6, pp. 46, 2017, Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper No. 520, Available at SSRN:

Lawrence M. Solan (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States
718-780-0357 (Phone)


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