Ordinary Meaning and Corpus Linguistics

48 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2017

See all articles by Stefan Th. Gries

Stefan Th. Gries

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Department of Linguistics; JLU Giessen

Brian G. Slocum

University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law

Date Written: October 14, 2017


This paper demonstrates how corpus analysis, and similar empirically-based methods of language study, can help inform judicial assessments about language meaning. We first briefly outline our view of legal language and interpretation in order to demonstrate the importance of the ordinary meaning doctrine, and thus the relevance of tools such as corpus analysis, to legal interpretation. Despite the heterogeneity of the current judicial interpretive process, and the importance of the specific context relevant to the statute at issue, conventions of meaning that cut across contexts are a necessary aspect of legal interpretation.

Indeed, such conventions are an important aspect of the sequential nature of legal interpretation, where a court first determines the ordinary meaning of the textual language and then:

(1) accepts that meaning as the legal meaning of the text,

(2) rejects it in favor of an unordinary meaning, or

(3) precisifies it in some way because the ordinary meaning is indeterminate in relation to the interpretive question before the court.

Nevertheless, the constituent question of what makes some permissible meaning the ordinary meaning is an inherently normative issue that courts typically, and incorrectly, treat as self-evident. Corpus analysis can provide valuable insights about language usage but cannot by itself resolve normative issues.

We demonstrate the potential of corpus analysis (and similar empirically based methods of language analysis) through the study of two rather infamous cases where the reviewing courts made various general claims about language meaning. In both cases, United States v. Costello and Smith v. United States, the courts made statements about language that are contradicted by corpus analysis. We also demonstrate the potential of corpus analysis through Hart’s no-vehicles-in-the-park hypothetical. A discussion of how to approach Hart’s hypothetical shows the potential but also the complexities of the kind of linguistic language analyses that such situations and scenarios require. Corpus linguistics can yield results that are relevant to legal interpretation, but the necessary analysis is complex and requires training. We conclude that while it is doubtful that judges will themselves become proficient at corpus linguistics, they should be receptive to the expert testimony of corpus linguists in appropriate circumstances.

Keywords: constitutional law, statutory interpretation, corpus linguistics, linguistics, jurisprudence, legislation, philosophy of language

JEL Classification: K10, K19, K20, K29, K30, K39, K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Gries, Stefan Th. and Slocum, Brian G., Ordinary Meaning and Corpus Linguistics (October 14, 2017). Brigham Young University Law Review, 2018, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3053146

Stefan Th. Gries

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Department of Linguistics ( email )

Santa Barbara, CA 93106
United States

JLU Giessen ( email )

Licher Str. 64
Giessen, 35394

Brian G. Slocum (Contact Author)

University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law ( email )

3200 Fifth Avenue
Sacramento, CA 95817
United States
(916) 739-7013 (Phone)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics