The Language of Statutes: A New Book on Statutory Interpretation

If you enjoy worrying the ambiguous spaces in legislation, or shaking your head at the foolishness of those who are wrongheaded about interpretation, you might like Lawrence Solan’s new book, The Language of Statutes, Laws and their Interpretation (University of Chicago Press, 2010, ISBN: 9780226767963—also available as an e-book, including what appears to be a 30-day “rental” for $7). His is a balanced, pragmatic view of statutory interpretation and the role of the courts, welcome, I’d say, in a U.S. climate where otherwise reasonable people can say that judges should simply apply laws mechanically and leave the creativity to the legislatures entirely.

His central view is that:

…[L]aws work fairly well. Most of the time people understand their obligations well enough, and most of the time the law’s application is clear. Hard cases arise because of a gap between our ability to write crisp yet appropriately flexible laws and the design of our cognitive and linguistic faculties.

Solan has a doctorate in linguistics as well as a law degree, and, as his bio says, “His scholarly works are largely devoted to exploring interdisciplinary issues related to law, language and psychology.”

You have the chance to get a free taste of Professor Solan’s style and thinking, because he’s posted Chapter 1 to the Social Science Research Network, from where you can download the PDF.


  1. I would say as well that hard cases arise simply because the real world does not line up in accordance with what the legislators predicts will be the situations needing the statute’s rules. That happens regardless of one’s cognitive and linguistic faculties or the quality of the drafting.

    I once asked a senior American law professor why U.S. statutes were so full of detail, compared to Canadian laws on similar subjects. Her answer was ‘because we elect our judges.’