BYU Law Review


Neal Goldfarb


Corpus linguistics is more than just a new tool for legal interpretation. Work in corpus linguistics has generated new ways of thinking about word meaning and about the interpretation of words in context. These insights challenge the assumptions that lawyers and judges generally make about words and their meaning. Although the words that make up a sentence are generally regarded as the basic units of meaning, corpus analysis has shown that in many cases, the meaning of a word as it is used in a given context is a function, not of the word by itself, but of the word’s interaction with that context. In the many instances in which that is the case, it will often make sense to regard the basic unit of meaning as a multi-word expression that includes not only the word in question but also the relevant parts of the context. That basic insight, which grew out of work on the world’s first dictionary based on an electronic corpus, opens the door to new ways for lawyers and judges to analyze issues of word meaning. This Article begins by contrasting two themes that run through legal interpretation: on the one hand, the view that word meanings are clearly delineated abstract entities that exist independently of the use of the word in context, and on the other hand, the view that word meanings exist only in context. (The Article comes down strongly in support of the latter view.) After setting out these two competing themes, the Article introduces the phenomenon of collocation—the tendency of certain words to co-occur disproportionately with certain other words. The study of collocation served as the starting point for the work that ultimately generated the new insights into the nature of word meaning.The Article then describes the development of that work, much of which was done as part of creating the first corpus-based dictionary. The Article summarizes some of the findings that were made by the lexicographers, and the conclusions about word meaning that followed from those findings. Some of those conclusions may strike readers as radical, since they call into question many widely held assumptions about word meaning. Finally, in order to demonstrate how the new approach can be used in legal interpretation, the Article undertakes a corpus analysis of the issue in the well-known case of Muscarello v. United States: whether driving to the site of a drug deal with a gun in the glove compartment constitutes “carrying a firearm.”