Law and Linguistics

Lawyers work with words. Tears, fisticuffs, power drills, or whisks won’t take you very far when you’re arguing. I’m told that a good haircut and a good tailor can help; but even these won’t do much for you if you’re drafting. Basically, it’s your command over language that lets you make a case.

That being so, it’s not surprising that more than a few lawyers display an interest in grammar, syntax and usage — elements out of which meaning is made. Of course, these are some of the professional possessions of those who study in the field of linguistics. This means that there’s some crossover between the two disciplines, as you can see when on Language Log, the the great linguistics blog that I go on about here on Slaw, has posts on language and the law. (By contrast with linguistics’ largely “descriptivist” approach, law is perhaps best described as a “prescriptivist” language activity, in which meaning and usage are impinged on, if not determined by, outside norms and a hermeneutic circle involving the canon of accepted precedents.)

An even more explicit example of the overlap is the blog LAWnLinguistics, the work of Neal Goldfarb, a senior counsel at the Washington DC firm, Butzel Long Tighe Patton, PLLC. It’s a low load blog — maybe two or three posts a month — so it would be easy on your reading list. Currently, he’s critiquing the dissent (“gets just about everything wrong”) in a stem-cell case he’s involved in that “turns to a great extent on questions of textual interpretation”. And he’s looked at the Apple-Microsoft spat over “app store,” plain meaning, and “Sex Change Surgery and Universal Grammar.”

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