Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 23 September 2019

Abstract and Keywords

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

Access to the complete content on Oxford Handbooks Online requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription.

Please subscribe or login to access full text content.

If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.

For questions on access or troubleshooting, please check our FAQs, and if you can''t find the answer there, please contact us.