The Overlooked Textual Evidence in the Title VII Cases: The Linguistic (And Therefore Textualist) Principle of Compositionality

9 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2020 Last revised: 11 May 2020

See all articles by James Cleith Phillips

James Cleith Phillips

Stanford University - Constitutional Law Center

Date Written: April 26, 2020


This short essay focuses on a linguistic (and therefore textualist) principle overlooked in the trio of Title VII cases currently before the U.S. Supreme Court: compositionality. By taking that principle seriously--a principle the Supreme Court has recognized in some form for a century--the essay uncovers corpus linguistic and dictionary evidence contemporaneous to the enactment of Title VII that sheds light on the relevant statutory language. That light provides an answer to the interpretive question the Court is facing.

Title VII makes it unlawful “to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s . . . sex.” Many observers seem to drop the word “against” and focus just on “discriminate.” Or if they do take “against” into account, they nonetheless fail to read the whole operative statutory phrase—including “discriminate,” “against,” and the relevant trait (in this case, sex)—as an indivisible whole. The argument for the plaintiffs, in particular, would require us to give “discriminate” and “against” the meaning each of them would have if it existed apart from the rest of the phrase. This “dissection” approach is most obvious in the most precise and careful formulations of the plaintiffs’ central textualist argument, as this Essay will show.

But that approach, as I will also show, violates the linguistic principle of compositionality. So it produces a demonstrably inferior reading of the text on purely linguistic grounds, prior to any appeal to subjective intent, purpose, policy concerns, or other modes of legal argument.

That is because, as it turns out, the phrase “discriminate against . . . because of [some trait]” was a linguistic unit (a composite) by the time of Title VII’s enactment, which makes the principle of compositionality relevant. And read as a composite, the phrase had more semantic content than one could glean from separately analyzing and then amalgamating its three parts (“discriminate,” “against,” and “sex”). While a “dissection” reading might suggest that Title VII covers any adverse treatment that even adverts to sex, as plaintiffs suppose, a linguistically superior reading (taking compositionality into account) proves that the operative text refers only to adverse treatment that rests on prejudice or bias—i.e., unfair beliefs or attitudes directed at some or all men in particular, or at some or all women in particular (whether the beliefs be outright falsehoods or just unduly rough or weak generalizations; and whether the attitudes be indifference, discounting of interests, distaste, or outright antipathy). And this defeats the plaintiffs’ textualist argument. Whatever the legal merits of their case overall, their textualist case fails because it violates a basic linguistic principle as applied to linguistic data from the era. But as it happens, the prejudice-based conception of discrimination that is required by the text properly read, also fits well with all the Court's precedents on sex discrimination.

To establish the above points about the text, this Essay appeals only to (1) dictionaries from the time of Title VII's enactment, and (2) systematic data on linguistic usage from the same period (which this Essay draws from the Corpus of Historical American English, containing 24 million words' worth of naturally occurring text that provides a balanced snapshot of American English usage).

Keywords: textualism, corpus linguistics, Title VII, sex discrimination

Suggested Citation

Phillips, James Cleith, The Overlooked Textual Evidence in the Title VII Cases: The Linguistic (And Therefore Textualist) Principle of Compositionality (April 26, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

James Cleith Phillips (Contact Author)

Stanford University - Constitutional Law Center ( email )

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