Syntax and semantics at the Supreme Court

« previous post | next post »

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to take up Noel Canning v. National Labor Relations Board, perhaps better known as "that case about recess appointments". The issue is the interpretation of Article 2, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution,

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

You can find a summary of the case at, and complete background information at SCOTUSblog, including a recent "Plain English" summary by Amy Howe.

This case is rich in linguistic issues:  The scope of of the prepositional phrase  "during the recess of the Senate"; what "the recess" means;  what "happen" means,  and so on. There's some earlier LL discussion in "What 'the' means", 1/28/2013; no doubt there will be more to say after the oral arguments in this case, and especially when the decision is announced.


  1. TomY said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 7:39 am

    The syntax and semantics might be of interest but I'm more curious about the capitalization of every Noun. My German friends do this, for a reason I understand.

  2. Bill W said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 8:11 am

    "the capitalization of every Noun" This was the orthographic convention in the 18th century.

  3. Joseph F Foster said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    Indeed, Mr. W is correct and that Nouns in Colonial and early Federalist Period Orthography were quite commonly, though not always consistently, capitalized. And though it doesn't show up in the Passage relevant to this topic of Recess Appointments, the Constitution in its Syntax regards United States as a plural Noun. When I was in School in the 1950s, I insisted on writing and saying "the United States are / have, &c. and had a "Fight" with a couple of Teachers about it. I cited relevant places in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence (…"these United Colonies are…") and won.

  4. NSBK said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    I seem to remember something about "the US are" vs "the US is" and Lincoln supposedly popularizing the singular to emphasize unity during/after the US Civil War, but I don't know how true this is.

  5. Nathan said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 9:39 am

    The 2 LL posts I can find about "the United States are" are here and here.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    A number of different amicus briefs have been filed by various academics, mostly law professors but I believe also some poli sci / history types. I have not read those briefs and thus do not have an informed opinion on the quality of their arguments about the meaning of the text, but I note that no brief seems to have been filed by academic linguists purporting to offer an impartial analysis of 18th century syntax and semantics via the tools of corpus linguistics etc. I suppose we will have to wait for argument and decision to see if the lack of such input arguably has any negative effect on the output of the process.

RSS feed for comments on this post