[Tap tap. Is this thing on?
I guess as a freshly minted Language Logger, I should introduce myself: I am a professor of linguistics at MIT. I work on meaning: semantics, pragmatics, philosophy of language, and the intersections thereof. I am also a part-time denizen of the academic Dark Side, as Associate Dean of MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. I blog on academic, geeky, abstruse, and personal aspects of my life on my personal blog "semantics etc.". Together with fellow LanguageLogger David Beaver, I co-edit the new kid on the block journal Semantics and Pragmatics, for which we maintain an editors' blog as well. So what's one more gig, right?
In this post, I partially recycle some notes that appeared on my blog in 2005. But there is a new angle.]
In a recent interview, Supreme Court Justice Breyer lists the five books that have influenced his thinking the most. Among them: J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words. Breyer says:
JL Austin was an ordinary language philosopher. When I studied in Oxford, I went to one of his classes and I read his books. How to Do Things with Words teaches us a lot about how ordinary language works. It is useful to me as a judge, because it helps me avoid the traps that linguistic imprecision can set. If I had to pick a single thing that I draw from Austin's work it would be that context matters. It enables us to understand, when someone makes a statement, what that statement refers to and what that person meant.
When I see the word "any" in a statute, I immediately know it's unlikely to mean "anything" in the universe. "Any" will have a limitation on it, depending on the context. When my wife says, "there isn't any butter," I understand that she's talking about what is in our refrigerator, not worldwide. We look at context over and over, in life and in law.
Austin suggests that there is good reason to look beyond text to context. Context is very important when you examine a statement or law. A statement made by Congress, under certain formal conditions, becomes a law. Context helps us interpret language, including the language of a statute. Purpose is often an important part of context. So Austin probably encourages me to put more weight on purpose.
It is very interesting that Breyer should choose the word "any" as an example of why context matters. A few years back, there was in fact a Supreme Court decision (Small v. United States) that hinged on the meaning of "any" (pdf of the decision here]). And as it turns out, Justice Breyer wrote the decision for the majority (made up of Breyer, Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, and Ginsburg; ah the good old days).
Petitioner Small was convicted in a Japanese Court of trying to smuggle firearms and ammunition into that country. He served five years in prison and then returned to the United States, where he bought a gun. Federal authorities subsequently charged Small under 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(1), which forbids "any person … convicted in any court … of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year … to … possess … any firearm."
Small subsequently argued that any court was not meant to encompass foreign courts, only domestic ones. The Supreme Court agreed.
The arguments in the decision are a good case study of semantics/pragmatics in the real (well, legal) world. Here are some excerpts:
The question before us is whether the statutory reference "convicted in any court" includes a conviction entered in a foreign court. The word "any" considered alone cannot answer this question. In ordinary life, a speaker who says, "I'll see any film," may or may not mean to include films shown in another city.
In law, a legislature that uses the statutory phrase " 'any person' " may or may not mean to include " 'persons' " outside "the jurisdiction of the state." See, e.g., United States v. Palmer, 3 Wheat. 610, 631 (1818) (Marshall, C. J.) ("[G]eneral words," such as the word "'any,' " must "be limited" in their application "to those objects to which the legislature intended to apply them"); Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, 541 U. S. 125, 132 (2004) (" 'any' " means "different things depending upon the setting"); United States v. Alvarez-Sanchez, 511 U. S. 350, 357 (1994) ("[R]espondent errs in placing dispositive weight on the broad statutory reference to 'any' law enforcement officer or agency without considering the rest of the statute"); Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Assn., 453 U. S. 1, 15-16 (1981) (it is doubtful that the phrase " 'any statute' " includes the very statute in which the words appear); Flora v. United States, 362 U. S. 145, 149 (1960) ("[A]ny sum," while a "catchall" phase, does not "define what it catches"). Thus, even though the word "any" demands a broad interpretation, see, e.g., United States v. Gonzales, 520 U. S. 1, 5 (1997), we must look beyond that word itself.
In determining the scope of the statutory phrase we find help in the "commonsense notion that Congress generally legislates with domestic concerns in mind." Smith v. United States, 507 U. S. 197, 204, n. 5 (1993). This notion has led the Court to adopt the legal presumption that Congress ordinarily intends its statutes to have domestic, not extraterritorial, application. See Foley Bros., Inc. v. Filardo, 336 U. S. 281, 285 (1949); see also Palmer, supra, at 631 ("The words 'any person or persons,' are broad enough to comprehend every human being" but are "limited to cases within the jurisdiction of the state"); EEOC v. Arabian American Oil Co., 499 U. S. 244, 249-251 (1991). That presumption would apply, for example, were we to consider whether this statute prohibits unlawful gun possession abroad as well as domestically.
The statute's language does not suggest any intent to reach beyond domestic convictions. Neither does it mention foreign convictions nor is its subject matter special, say, immigration or terrorism, where one could argue that foreign convictions would seem especially relevant. To the contrary, if read to include foreign convictions, the statute's language creates anomalies.
For example, the statute specifies that predicate crimes include "a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence." 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(9). Again, the language specifies that these predicate crimes include only crimes that are "misdemeanor[s] under Federal or State law." §921(a)(33)(A). If "convicted in any court" refers only to domestic convictions, this language creates no problem. If the phrase also refers to foreign convictions, the language creates an apparently senseless distinction between (covered) domestic relations misdemeanors committed within the United States and (uncovered) domestic relations misdemeanors committed abroad.
The Supreme Court's doctrine therefore seems to be that "any" like other quantifiers can be contextually restricted, that what the restrictions are depends on the intentions of the speaker (here: Congress), and that one can infer the intentions by seeing what interpretations make sense in the context of other utterances in the same text.
What makes "any" so interesting in this context is that there is a tension between the natural tendency of quantifiers to be contextually restricted and the peculiar properties of "any". In a seminal article on the semantics of "any" (unfortunately there's no open access version, here is the JSTOR version which some of you may have access to), Nirit Kadmon and Fred Landman argue that what "any" contributes is a widening of the meaning a sentence might otherwise have. They suggest that the difference between "we don't have bananas" and "we don't have any bananas" is that in the latter case we claim to not even have questionable bananas. Justice Breyer argues in his decision, quite plausibly, that this widening effect has its limits. "Any court" can mean "any court in the US" without being interpreted as widely as "any court anywhere in the world".
By the way, Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy dissented, saying that the court's decision "institutes the troubling rule that 'any' does not really mean 'any,' but may mean 'some subset of "any,"' even if nothing in the context so indicates" (hmm, three levels of quotation do stress the English punctuation system).
As a professional semanticist, I concur with Breyer and dissent from the dissenters.