Triangulating Ordinary Meaning

32 Pages Posted: 16 May 2023 Last revised: 17 Sep 2023

See all articles by Kevin Tobia

Kevin Tobia

Georgetown University Law Center; Georgetown University - Department of Philosophy

Jesse Egbert

Northern Arizona University

Thomas R. Lee

Brigham Young University - J. Reuben Clark Law School

Date Written: May 8, 2023


Textualism claims to pave a clear path to the determinate “ordinary meaning” of statutory language. But textualist Justices disagree about the ordinary meaning of particular statutes. This essay proposes a new way forward: triangulating ordinary meaning with multiple empirical methods. Specifically, textualists who seek ordinary meaning should in some circumstances consider the possibility of complementing (i) traditional tools–like dictionaries, linguistic canons, and intuition–with newly available data from (ii) corpus linguistics and (iii) survey experiments. As a case study, we consider Pulsifer v. United States, concerning interpretation of the First Step Act. The Supreme Court will soon decide Pulsifer, a decision that likely turns on the Court’s conclusion about ordinary meaning. We present original corpus linguistic and experimental survey studies that bear on this issue. The essay’s conclusions have concrete implications for Pulsifer, a case which could impact the sentences of thousands of drug defendants. This proof of concept also has broader implications for statutory interpretation theory.

Keywords: textualism, interpretation, ordinary meaning, Supreme Court, corpus linguistics, legal interpretation

Suggested Citation

Tobia, Kevin and Egbert, Jesse and Lee, Thomas R., Triangulating Ordinary Meaning (May 8, 2023). Georgetown Law Journal Online, Vol. 112, 23-54 (2023), BYU Law Research Paper No. 23-19, Georgetown University Law Center Research Paper No. Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Kevin Tobia (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States


Georgetown University - Department of Philosophy

37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington, DC 20007
United States

Jesse Egbert

Northern Arizona University ( email )

PO Box 15066
Flagstaff, AZ 86011
United States


Thomas R. Lee

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

519 JRCB
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
United States

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