Archive for Language and the law

The Second Amendment people

The controversial words about the Second Amendment that Donald Trump uttered at a rally in North Carolina yesterday are as follows:

Hillary wants to abolish
— essentially abolish —
the Second Amendment.
By the way,
if she gets to pick her judges… [long pause]
Nothing you can do, folks. [long pause]
Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.

Trump defenders are denying that this was an oblique encouragement to gun-possessing supporters to shoot Mrs Clinton. His own defense is that he was suggesting people should go to the polls and vote. Utter bullshit. This is perhaps Trump's most outrageous remark yet. He couldn't have blown the dog whistle much louder without being in danger of arrest for encouraging violence.

The three key linguistic points are (1) the reference of the noun phrase "the Second Amendment people", (2) the meaning of the modal adjunct "maybe", and (3) the function of the "I don't know" on the end.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Clamp down on English

In media reporting on current events in China, two of the most conspicuous terms one encounters are "clamp down" (qǔdì 取缔, qiābā 掐巴, qiánzhì 钳制, etc.) and "crack down" (yánlì dǎjí 严厉打击 / 嚴厲打擊 [to show how different simplified and traditional forms of the characters can be]).  There are also numerous other similar terms with related meanings in common use, such as those for "ban; forbid; outlaw; suppress; repress".  These clamp/crack downs and bans can be directed toward Islam, Christianity, feminism, human rights advocates / lawyers, any form of dissent, and so forth.  Yet no other clamp down has occasioned so much spontaneous and widespread opposition from those representing a broad spectrum of a large segment of the general population as the recent announcement of the new rules governing online video games.

"Mobile game devs are very pissed about China’s new censorship rules", by C. Custer, Tech in Asia (7/6/16)

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (10)

Corpus-based judicial opinions

Gordon Smith, "Michigan Supreme Court Embraces Corpus Linguistics", The Conglomerate 6/28/2016:

In the case of People v. Harris, the Michigan Supreme Court became the first state supreme court in the United States to embrace corpus linguistics. (I have written here about Justice Thomas Lee's concurrence in the Utah Supreme Court's Rasabout case, which is cited in this Michigan opinion.) The consolidated cases relate to the "Disclosures by Law Enforcement Officers Act" (DLEOA), which bars the use in a subsequent criminal proceeding of all "information" provided by a law enforcement officer under threat of any employment sanction. While the act does not distinguish between true and false statements, the court used corpus analysis to investigate whether "information" must be true. The majority concludes, "false or inaccurate information cannot be used against a law enforcement officer in subsequent criminal proceedings. To hold otherwise would defeat the Legislature's stated intent…."

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

Parrot as witness?

Peter Holley, "Foul-mouthed parrot may be used as evidence in murder trial, prosecutor says", WaPo 6/26/2016:

Family members believe Bud, an African gray parrot, may have witnessed the shooting that left Martin Duram dead and his wife severely injured.  

They believe this because the bird’s latest phrase — the one he won’t stop shouting at the top of his lungs mimicking his owner’s voice — is a chilling one: “Don’t f—ing shoot!”  

Duram’s body was found near his wife, who suffered a gunshot wound to her head but is alive. Although police initially assumed she was a victim of the shooting, police reports obtained by WOOD-TV revealed that she eventually became a suspect in the slaying. […]

Relatives told the station that they think Martin Duram’s final moments were imprinted in the bird’s memory and that he continues to relive the slaying. They noted that Bud mimicked both the victim and his wife.


Comments (20)

"Dangerous love"

In China, you may be breaking the law if you date a foreigner for the purpose of learning their language.

On April 15, China observed its first annual National Security Education Day with the distribution of propaganda materials, delivery of speeches, and other activities designed to raise awareness of security issues.  A centerpiece of the campaign is a comic book-like poster in 16 panels titled "Wéixiǎn de àiqíng 危险的爱情" (“Dangerous Love”).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (27)

Annals of conjunction

The Supreme Court released its opinion in Lockhart v. United States, where

Petitioner Avondale Lockhart pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U. S. C. §2252(a)(4). Because Lockhart had a prior state-court conviction for first-degree sexual abuse involving his adult girlfriend, his presentence report concluded that he was subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence enhancement provided in §2252(b)(2), which is triggered by, inter alia, prior state convictions for crimes “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” Lockhart argued that the limiting phrase “involving a minor or ward” applied to all three state crimes, so his prior conviction did not trigger the enhancement. Disagreeing, the District Court applied the mandatory minimum. The Second Circuit affirmed.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (41)

And or ou

As we've discussed more than once (e.g. "The billion-dollar conjunction", 12/30/2015), sometimes it's not clear how to interpret the choice between and and or, even when a lot depends on the answer. Adding to the list of such examples, R.A. sends in an example where English and has been translated as French ou.

This seems to be a matter of random stylistic preference rather than a difference between the languages, in that the English version might have chosen orand (or?) the French version might have chosen et, without changing the intended interpretation in either case. But at the same time, either choice in either language might perversely be given an unintended interpretation. Lawyers beware…

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)


This World War II American propaganda poster speaks for itself:

A poster of WWII era discouraging the
use of Italian, German, and Japanese.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (28)

The billion-dollar conjunction

Josh Kosman, "Caesars may sink because of allege $3B typo", New York Post 12/14/2015:

Leon Black’s Apollo Global Management is now defending itself against an alleged typo that could cost up to $3 billion. […]

Caesars in its 2008 debt agreement set conditions that would need to be met so it could strip the guarantee between the parent company and the gaming-operating subsidiary.

In the debt agreement, it says it can strip the gaming subsidiary’s guarantees if: A) it stopped being a subsidiary of the parent, B) the company transferred substantially all of its assets out of subsidiary, “AND” C) it essentially prepaid the bonds.

“There’s no way they satisfied all three conditions,” a source close to the case said, referring to when Caesars stripped the guarantee transferring some of its best assets to newly created divisions and put the subsidiary in bankruptcy.

Caesars claims it meant to say “OR.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (20)

In the European Union or out?

Over the past week there has been a change in the officially ordained wording of the referendum question about European Union membership that will be put before the people of the United Kingdom some time over the coming two years. On the face of it, the change seems trivial or even pointless, because it does not allow for any new decision to be made by the voters. They will vote either to continue the UK's membership in the EU or to discontinue it. But the change provides a very clear and useful example showing the real-life importance of a linguistic distinction.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Fun with commas

For your reading pleasure this morning: Kenneth Adams, "Bamboozled by a Comma: The Second Circuit’s Misdiagnosis of Ambiguity in American International Group, Inc. v. Bank of America Corp.", 16 Scribes J. Legal Writing 45 (2014–15):

In its opinion in American International Group, Inc. v. Bank of America Corp., the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit invoked the principle of construction that this article refers to as “the comma test under the rule of the last antecedent”: if in a sentence a series of nouns, noun phrases, or clauses is followed by a modifier and the modifier is preceded by a comma, the modifier applies to the entire series, not just the final element in the series.

But as the opinion inadvertently demonstrates, that principle of construction is inconsistent with English usage and should be rejected. The opinion also serves as a reminder that judges cannot always be counted on to understand how ambiguity operates; courts should permit expert-witness testimony on ambiguity.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (14)

"Linguists have a name for this kind of analysis"

Gordon Smith is enthusiastic about a recent opinion of the Utah Supreme Court, as he explains in "Corpus Linguistics in the Courts (Again)", The Conglomerate 8/14/2015:

Yes, yes, yes!

The point at issue is important and ubiquitous in legal argumentation, and his blog post explains the reasons for his (well justified) enthusiasm at least as well as I could. So go read it!

Comments (15)

We'll just have to pass it…

In the majority opinion of King v. Burwell, Chief Justice Roberts had some harsh words for the "inartful drafting" of the Affordable Care Act, which led to the difficulty in interpreting the phrase "an Exchange established by the State." Roberts wrote:

The Affordable Care Act contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting. (To cite just one, the Act creates three separate Section 1563s. See 124 Stat. 270, 911, 912.) Several features of the Act's passage contributed to that unfortunate reality. Congress wrote key parts of the Act behind closed doors, rather than through "the traditional legislative process." Cannan, A Legislative History of the Affordable Care Act: How Legislative Procedure Shapes Legislative History, 105 L. Lib. J. 131, 163 (2013). And Congress passed much of the Act using a complicated budgetary procedure known as "reconciliation," which limited opportunities for debate and amendment, and bypassed the Senate's normal 60-vote filibuster requirement. Id., at 159–167. As a result, the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation. Cf. Frankfurter, Some Reflections on the Reading of Statutes, 47 Colum. L. Rev. 527, 545 (1947) (describing a cartoon "in which a senator tells his colleagues 'I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand. We'll just have to pass it to find out what it means.'"). 

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (7)