Barbara Phillips Long pointed me to Prof. James Maule's tax-law blog, Mauled Again, because, she wrote, "he touches on three areas that intrigue me –language, teaching and economics". So I followed the link and read a few pages, and I was struck by a number of implicit connections. For example, his approach to teaching the tax code reminded me of the way I was taught, many years ago, to "construe" Latin texts:
I take the students through an analysis of how Code sections and Treasury regulation sections are constructed, showing them that the secret to parsing the language is … to break the conglomeration of words into phrases and other segments and then to re-connect them, preferably in a manner that resembles English more than what I call "tax-ese."
Prof. Maule goes into the process in considerable additional detail, and it really does seem to be closely analogous to the traditional pedagogical technique described in the OED's sense 3 of construe:
To analyse or trace the grammatical construction of a sentence; to take its words in such an order as to show the meaning of the sentence; spec. to do this in the study of a foreign and especially a classical language, adding a word for word translation; hence, loosely, to translate orally a passage in an ancient or foreign author.
This approach long ago fell out of fashion as a way to teach foreign languages, for mostly good reasons. But it also gave students a model for understanding complex material in their native language by an analogous process of analysis and re-synthesis. And a more sophisticated version of the same process remains at the heart of everyday linguistic analysis, where the goal is not simply to understand what a sentence means, but also how and why it means.
Prof. Maule's pedagogical notes are full of other implicit law/linguistics connections. For example,
Finally, I try to instill in the students’ minds the difference between what they think they are going to be doing and what they often will need to do. They are accustomed to working from premises (or facts) to conclusions. Though there is opportunity enough in tax, and in other courses, to engage in this consequential analysis, there also is a need to understand the process of working from a desired conclusion to the premises or facts. As an example of how students enhance my teaching, I did not articulate this aspect of the course in this manner until a student, who had come to my office several times to complain that something was wrong with my teaching and grading because she was a top student but was doing poorly in my tax course, returned to exclaim, "I figured out what you are doing. We spent a year being given A and B, with the objective of getting to C, and you’re telling us we have A and want to get to C and are asking us what we need to get there." Bingo. That’s the essence of transactional work, of tax planning and of planning in many other areas of law.
Being given A, having the objective of getting to C, and trying to figure out "what we need to get there", is an excellent ordinary-language account of the theory of meaning advanced in e.g. Hobbs, Stickel, Martin and Edwards, "Interpretation as Abduction", ACL 26, 1988, which argues that
… the interpretation of a sentence is the least-cost abductive proof of the logical form of the sentence. That is, to interpret a sentence one tries to prove the logical form by using the most salient axioms and other information, exploiting the natural redundancy of discourse to minimize the size of the proof, and allowing the minimal number of consistent and plausible assumptions necessary to make the proof go through. Anaphora are resolved and predications are pragmatically strengthened as a by-product of this process.
This is not the first time, or the only reason, that I've wondered whether the right choice for a pre-law major might be an appropriately-designed linguistics program.