Few topics in the theory of language are as closely related to legal interpretation as the linguistic indeterminacy associated with ambiguity and vagueness. Significant portions of the institutional legal system, especially courts at the appellate level and supreme courts, are for the most part concerned not with disentangling the facts of cases but with the indeterminacies of the law. In a colloquial sense, both vagueness and ambiguity are employed generically to indicate indeterminacy. This is the sense in which vagueness is understood in the ‘void for vagueness’ doctrine, according to which a statute is considered void if it is framed in terms so indeterminate that its meaning can only be guessed at. Vagueness may relate to individuation or classification. There are at least four different vantage points from which to address the problems caused by vagueness: logic, ontology, epistemology, and semantics. This article explores ambiguity and vagueness in legal interpretation, and discusses other forms of indeterminacy, kinds of vagueness, and vagueness and the rule of law.
According to conventional contract law, the formation of a valid agreement ordinarily involves an offer, an acceptance, and consideration. The former two elements typically take place through spoken or written language: an offeror proposes to do something in exchange for something of value to be given by an offeree. The latter may then accept the offer, reject it, or make a counteroffer. What is it that makes this particular verbal exchange so special, and how does it differ from other acts of speech which may also entail legal consequences, such as issuing a threat, offering a bribe, defaming someone, or perjuring oneself? This article addresses this question using speech-act theory, a linguistic approach to meaning advocated by two language philosophers, John Austin (1962) and John Searle (1969). It presents Searle's requirements (called felicity conditions) that commissive illocutions must satisfy in order to be well-formed speech acts. The article also discusses contract formation by focusing on promise versus offer and commitment versus obligation.
Interrogation Through Pragmatic Implication: Sticking to the Letter of the Law While Violating its Intent
Deborah Davis and Richard A. Leo
Throughout American history, police-induced false confessions have been among the leading causes of wrongful conviction. The law in the United States has evolved over time to protect suspects from police coercion and to discourage the use of physical violence, explicit threats, or promises of leniency contingent upon confession. However, police have adapted and developed pre-interrogation and interrogation procedures that are specifically designed to convey the forbidden messages indirectly, through the process of pragmatic implication. They deliberately use indirect implication both to negate Miranda warnings and to convey the forbidden explicit promises or threats contingent on the suspect's choice of confession or continued denial. These indirect strategies of implication violate the intent of the law while adhering to its literal content. This article reviews common police interrogation tactics, with particular emphasis on those conveying implicit messages beyond their literal content. It shows that most such implied messages are conveyed indirectly by the interrogator and understood by the suspect through conversational implicatures based on the presumption of relevance.