Patterns in Language and Law

Lawrence M. Solan


Our language faculty is rule-like in some ways, pattern-like in others, as Steven Pinker (1999) has shown. Much of syntax is describable a set of rules, whereas the range of meanings attributed to a word is best described in terms of patterns. Laws are typically written as rules, but they are written in words, many of which display pattern-like arrays of usage. Legal systems default to an expression’s “ordinary meaning,” requiring estimates of patterns of usage. Recently, advances in corpus linguistics have been adduced by judges and legal scholars in this regard. Furthermore, open-textured legal terms, including the word “pattern” itself, are by their nature more describable in terms of patterns of their application than in terms of hard-and-fast rules. Apart from linguistic issues in legal interpretation, legal systems value coherence, requiring that like things be treated alike, often focusing on patterns of how laws are applied. At times, however, these patterns uncover biases in a law’s application. This article attempts to describe how this duality in both linguistic description law interact with each other.

Cite as: Solan, JLL 6 (2017), 46–66, DOI: 10.14762/jll.2017.046



corpus, ordinary meaning, rule, pattern, standard, legal linguistics, courts, US judiciary

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