Publication Title

Washington University Law Quarterly


First, I will discuss certain limits in the potential relevance of linguistic theory to legal analysis. In particular, even on its own terms, linguistics ordinarily will not be a source of authority about how legal documents should be interpreted. I will then discuss two areas in which I believe that linguistic analysis may be of some use to courts. The first, which will be touched on only briefly, involves the discussion by courts of statutes containing complex syntactic structures whose interpretations are in dispute. Although linguists ordinarily have no special ability to interpret such statutes, they may be of help to a court obliged to justify its decision with an account of how the language should be analyzed. Most of the paper will be devoted to the second area, which is word meaning. I will show that courts evaluate the meanings of disputed terms in two different ways-in terms of definitions and in terms of how far the word strays from the prototypical use of the word-and that different approaches to word meaning can have serious jurisprudential ramifications.