happy new year.

I am a legal profession, not a linguist. I hope this is a worthy linguistics question. Can I have your thoughts please on this quotation by Lord Hoffman, a former Law Lord? Nowadays he would be a UK supreme court justice.

I think he is wrong, because dictionaries do not list all words in a language, like slang or newfangled words. But I have no idea what he means by "grammars". Then again, I've NEVER studied linguistics.

Investors Compensation Scheme v. West Bromwich Building Society [1997] UKHL 28 (19 June, 1997)

(4)      The meaning which a document (or any other utterance) would convey to a reasonable man is not the same thing as the meaning of its words. The meaning of words is a matter of dictionaries and grammars; the meaning of the document is what the parties using those words against the relevant background would reasonably have been understood to mean. The background may not merely enable the reasonable man to choose between the possible meanings of words which are ambiguous but even (as occasionally happens in ordinary life) to conclude that the parties must, for whatever reason, have used the wrong words or syntax. (see Mannai Investments Co. Ltd. v. Eagle Star Life Assurance Co. Ltd. [1997] 2 WLR 945

thank you very much! all the best in 2022. stay safe!


This is the area of the theory of legal interpretation that is most interesting to linguists. My first recommended reading is The language of judges by Lawrence Solan, a linguist-lawyer. That work sets forth some basic principles of linguistics that are relevant to legal interpretation, including for example the "last antecedent rule" (an actually-recognized principle of interpretation). The typical situation in legal interpretation is that a certain text can have two or more readings. What a grammar might contribute to that controversy is an understanding of whether or how two interpretations are possible. To take a simple example, the phrase "old men and women" is ambiguous: "old" could refer to just "men", or to "men and women". But there is no ambiguity in "Women and old men".

In the present case, the question is what the meaning is for the following text from the contract

any claim (whether sounding in rescission for undue influence or otherwise) that you have . . . against the . . . Society in which you claim an abatement of sums which you would otherwise have to repay to that Society . . .

A dictionary might be relevant to determining the meaning of individual lexical items, but no word in the text has an ambiguity that I can discern. A grammar becomes relevant because in prior proceedings, it was noted that

the wider construction of "any claim" and "abatement" led to a "ridiculous commercial result which the parties to the Claim Forms were quite unlikely to have intended" and that it was clear that "the drafting of the second paragraph of Section 3(b) was mistaken"

(underlining points to an aspect of pragmatics, see below).

The core linguistic question is "what is meaning". Linguists have a very expansive view of meaning, and justices are generally unaware of those nuances. One version of meaning relates to individual words, such as the meaning of "claim", "sum" or "abatement". The cited text is massively ambiguous just on grounds of lexical meaning (look up the senses of these words in the OED). I do not see any evidence that there is any serious lexical ambiguity in the paragraph, nor that purported lexical ambiguity is relevant. (Occasionally one finds ambiguities such as whether selling a gun they buying drugs with the money constitutes "using" a firearm in a drug sale). Legal interpretation operates under the fiction that parties know the legal meanings of words, which narrows down the possible meanings of "claim".

The second kind of meaning is compositional meaning, that is, the meaning that arises from combining word meaning plus rules of grammar. For example, the two meanings of "Old men and women" arise from the grammatically governed possibility that "old" modifies just "men", or it may modify "men and women". A grammar cannot decide this particular example, but it can decide that there is no ambiguity in "old men and a woman" or "old men and those women".

In the opinion, it is stated that

According to ordinary rules of syntax, "any claim" is the antecedent of "that you have" and the words "or otherwise" in the adjectival parenthesis mean that it does not limit the breadth of "any claim." It follows that claims of any description are reserved as long as they amount to claims for an "abatement" of what is owing to the Society. There are various ways in which the amount owing might be abated but one would be on account of a set-off against the Society's liability for damages. Thus the syntax of the words following "any claim" points to a wide meaning of "abatement" which includes the effect of cross-claims.

In this case, there is a weak suggestion that perhaps "abatement" is ambiguous, but that is a linguistically ill-founded conclusion: the word is vague, not ambiguous. An ambiguous word has two or more definite meaning, a vague word doesn't say exactly what constitutes the the referential boundary of a word. "Green" is not ambiguous, nor is "abatement".

The point about compositional meaning, though, that "that you have" must be construed as modifying "any claim", is linguistically uncontroversial. While we don't know the exact arguments and thinking processes that preceded this opinion, there is no reasonable alternative interpretation of the scope of "that you have". It is extremely unlikely that anyone consulted an actual grammar book to determine this self-evident fact about meaning. Instead, justices generally do what linguists do in sorting out the meaning of texts: they use introspection, usually correctly. Occasionally, a party may hire a linguist to construct good linguistic arguments regarding semantics and the linguist's conclusions end up becoming constitutional law (see Heller).

A further matter of compositional meaning is the fact that "for undue influence" follows the word "rescission" in the parenthetical clause. One interpretation that could be (incompetently or disingenuously) proffered is that this limits the scope for possible claims to rescission (cancelling the contract) only to the case of "undue influence". The sentential matrix in which this is embedded – "whether...or otherwise" – linguistically precludes that decision, and the law itself does so likewise (e.g. misrepresentation is also a basis for a legal claim). So these are not matters of lexical meaning, these are matters of compositional meaning.

The third aspect of meaning that linguists care about is "pragmatics", that is, the strategies that individuals would use in selecting an interpretation. By providing additional context, "Old men and women" can be shown to only mean "old men and any women" (or in a different context, both men and women must be old to qualify). Insofar as the law makes every reasonable effort to avoid contractual rescission, pragmatics becomes highly relevant in determining what the intent of the parties must have been, in those cases where the words that they actually use are poorly chosen (as in this case).

In the present case, Lord Goff simply lacked specialized training of linguistic semantics, and therefore does not apparently grasp the distinction between lexical meaning and compositional meaning. It is thus natural to see this as a matter of "the meaning of words", even tough it is a matter of "the meaning of phrases".


I assume by "grammars" Hoffman means grammar reference books or perhaps style guides.

Fundamentally, the meaning of words is not the same thing as what dictionaries or other reference works say about the words. However, reference works can be assumed to contain some information, albeit partial and occasionally inaccurate, about the meaning of words.

The clause you bolded is likely not intended to give a fundamental or comprehensive definition of what "the meaning of words" is. As an operational definition of how to find "the meaning of a word", "look at what a dictionary entry says about it" has the advantage of being a fairly easy and standardized procedure. It has the disadvantage, as you point out, that it does not work for all words: some words will not be recorded by the dictionary, or will not have the relevant meaning recorded in their dictionary entries. There are other advantages and disadvantages to this and other potential methods of how to practically find out "the meaning of words/a word".

A philosophically adequate definition of what "the meaning of words" means, when dealing with the words out of context, would likely refer to something that we can't easily access such as mental representations or communities of speakers, and so would not be practical to use to actually find out the meaning of any particular word.

I think your objection to Hoffman's statement here is ultimately beside the point, as the purpose of it appears to just be an intermediate step leading to the conclusion in the last sentence of the quoted passage that the reader of a document should not rely only on dictionaries and grammars to interpret the meaning of the document: it is also necessary to take background into account, and certain background information may make it clear that the meaning of a document is in fact impossible to derive from just the dictionary definitions of the words used.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.