Semantics in the John Edwards trial (James Hill and Beth Lloyd, "John Edwards Defense Relies on Definition of 'The'", Good Morning America 5/13/2012):
Not since Bill Clinton challenged the definition of "is" has so much hinged on a very short word.
John Edwards appears to basing much of his defense, which begins today in a North Carolina courtroom, on the legal interpretation of the word "the." […]
The statute governing illegal receipt of campaign contributions "means any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money… for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office."
The words "the purpose" suggests that in order for a conviction, the sole reason for the money would have to be to finance a presidential campaign.
Edwards' legal team has argued … that his main reason for hiding Hunter was to keep her secret from his wife, Elizabeth.
Prosecutors, however, are arguing the law should be interpreted to mean "a purpose," meaning use of the donations does not have to be solely for a political campaign.
Once during the anti-Vietnam war protests, when many of us at UCLA were restructuring courses to not be “business as usual”, I found this lovely book on language and the law: Bryant, Margaret M. 1962. English in the law courts; the part that articles, prepositions, and conjunctions play in legal decisions. New York,: F. Ungar. I used it in my semantics class for the rest of the semester, and realized what a fertile field language and the law could be (and it indeed blossomed in subsequent decades.) It had a whole chapter on “the” (other chapters included "and", "or", and "of". I was in heaven!) It’s been more than 40 years since I read it, but the main thing I remember is that for every position any semanticist or logician has taken on any of the little logical words in the language, some judicial decision can be cited as precedent for that position. (Larry Solan's first book, The Language of Judges (1993, University of Chicago Press) made the same point about potential parsing ambiguities — all possible ambiguity resolution principles are attested in judicial precedents.) And certainly the “uniqueness” condition on "the" is open to dispute.
There is now a whole research area devoted to “weak definites” — the term was coined, I believe, by Massimo Poesio in a 1994 paper, though the relevant phenomena had been observed much earlier. Sentences like “The kids had been writing with indelible markers on the wall of their grandmother’s living room” occur frequently, even though living rooms have four walls, and the meaning is the same as would be expressed by the (less natural sounding) “a wall”. A frequently cited sort of “weak definite” occurs in “My father was reading the newspaper and didn’t look up when Dick came in.” “Reading the newspaper” can just name an activity, much like “newspaper-reading”. Not every occurrence of a definite article can be so interpreted; one of the challenges is to explain why we can have a weak definite in “read the newspaper” but not in “read the book.” There will be a conference (not the first by any means) on weak definites in Florianopolis, Brazil in August. Perhaps the Edwards example will by then be a stock example.
I trust the prosecution team will have some linguists on call and/or some linguistically savvy lawyers. If the claim that "the purpose" in "for the purpose of" can only mean "the sole purpose" is the best defense Edwards has, I suspect he’s in trouble.
[Thanks to Jonathan Lighter via Ben Zimmer for the pointer to the Yahoo/Good Morning America article.]