BYU Law Review


This Article discusses how corpus analysis, and similar empirically based methods of language study, can help inform judicial assessments about language meaning. We first briefly outline our view of legal language and interpretation in order to underscore the importance of the ordinary meaning doctrine, and thus the relevance of tools such as corpus analysis, to legal interpretation. Despite the heterogeneity of the judicial interpretive process, and the importance of the specific context relevant to the statute at issue, conventions of meaning that cut across contexts are a necessary aspect of legal interpretation. Because ordinary meaning must in some sense be generalizable across contexts, it would seem to be subject in some way to the empirical verification that corpus analysis can provide. We demonstrate the potential of corpus analysis through the study of two rather infamous cases in which the reviewing courts made various general claims about language meaning. In both cases, United States v. Costello and Smith v. United States, the courts made statements about language that are contradicted by corpus analysis. We also demonstrate the potential of corpus analysis through Hart’s no-vehicles-in-the-park hypothetical. A discussion of how to approach Hart’s hypothetical shows the potential but also the complexities of the kind of linguistic analyses required by such scenarios. Corpus linguistics can yield results that are relevant to legal interpretation, but performing the necessary analyses is complex and requires significant training in order to perform competently. We conclude that while it is doubtful that judges will themselves become proficient at corpus linguistics, they should be receptive to the expert testimony of corpus linguists in appropriate circumstances.


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