The Interpretation of Legal Language

Posted: 13 Feb 2018

Date Written: January 2018


In everyday interactions, we do our best to resolve linguistic vagueness, ambiguity, and other indeterminacies contextually. When these problems arise in the interpretation of authoritative legal texts, by contrast, it is not abundantly clear what context is relevant, or even legitimate. This article discusses approaches that legal analysts take in resolving linguistic indeterminacy. The most basic principle is reliance on the “ordinary meaning” of a term in dispute, on the assumption that this default interpretation is most likely to be within the intention of the drafters. However, there is no clear understanding of what “ordinary meaning” means or how to find it. Most recently, judges and legal scholars have turned to using linguistic corpora to assist in determining ordinary meaning in such cases. Other cases, focusing on the resolution of syntactic or semantic ambiguity, are less common. Courts in these cases sometimes resort to legally based “tiebreakers,” such as the rule of lenity, which requires courts to resolve ambiguity in favor of the accused in criminal cases.

Suggested Citation

Solan, Lawrence M., The Interpretation of Legal Language (January 2018). Annual Review of Linguistics, Vol. 4, Issue 1, pp. 337-355, 2018. Available at SSRN: or

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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