Contract Interpretation with Corpus Linguistics

48 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2017 Last revised: 6 May 2018

Stephen C. Mouritsen

University of Chicago - Law School; Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

Date Written: November 4, 2017


When called upon to interpret the undefined language of a contract, judges and lawyers have for centuries appealed to the so-called Plain Meaning Rule—a canon of contractual interpretation that states that if the language of the contract is clear and unambiguous, courts cannot consider extrinsic evidence This rule is often justified on the basis of objectivity and efficiency. If the parties have committed their agreement to a writing whose terms are plain, it would be unfair and wasteful to consider extra-contractual evidence of meaning. Recent scholarship has questioned the objectivity and efficiency of courts’ plain-meaning analysis. Contract interpretation, the argument goes, has become an inconsistent, unnecessarily complex, and unpredictable enterprise. The question then is how to fix it.

Corpus linguistics can provide the objectivity and efficiency that are missing from current approaches to plain meaning. The use of linguistic corpora would introduce greater objectivity and predictability into the analysis of contractual meaning. Corpus linguistics draws its data from large, coded, electronic collections of natural text, meaning that the data relied upon in corpus linguistics is free of response bias. Moreover, data from linguistic corpora are freely available and, in many cases, easier to obtain than relevant survey data.

At bottom, I argue that the question of the plain meaning of the words of a contract is an empirical question that calls for an empirically based answer—an answer that is rooted in experimentation and observation and whose results are verifiable and falsifiable. Below I outline how corpus linguistic methods may be applied to the interpretation of contracts.

Keywords: corpus linguistics, contracts, interpretation, plain meaning, ordinary meaning, ambiguity

Suggested Citation

Mouritsen, Stephen C., Contract Interpretation with Corpus Linguistics (November 4, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Stephen C. Mouritsen (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School ( email )

430 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States

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