Linguistic Issues in Statutory Interpretation

Lawrence M. Solan

in The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780199572120
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Linguistic Issues in Statutory Interpretation

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  • Linguistics
  • Forensic Linguistics
  • Translation and Interpretation


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In legal systems throughout the world, legislatures write laws, and judges construe and apply them when a dispute arises over their interpretation. This article focuses on the nature of the language issues which cause problems in statutory interpretation, and the ways that courts tend to address them. It looks at American law, in part because American judges, who operate in the common law tradition, generally justify their decisions in written opinions, creating a body of information about interpretive arguments and techniques that makes this legal system a good laboratory for investigating these issues. After describing and illustrating some of the linguistic problems that make language inadequate to define rights and obligations without considering other values, the article discusses linguistic indeterminacies of different sorts, including syntactic ambiguity, semantic ambiguity, ambiguity of reference, and vagueness. It also examines laws whose meaning changes over time, creating a mismatch between the language and the goals of the enacting legislature, and concludes by focusing on legislative errors.

Keywords: legislatures; judges; language; law; statutory interpretation; syntactic ambiguity; semantic ambiguity; ambiguity of reference; vagueness; legislative errors

Article.  6175 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Forensic Linguistics ; Translation and Interpretation

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