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The Language of Statutes

Laws and Their Interpretation

Pulling the rug out from debates about interpretation, The Language of Statutes joins together learning from law, linguistics, and cognitive science to illuminate the fundamental issues and problems in this highly contested area. Here, Lawrence M. Solan argues that statutory interpretation is alive, well, and not in need of the major overhaul that many have suggested. Rather, he suggests, the majority of people understand their rights and obligations most of the time, with difficult cases occurring in circumstances that we can predict from understanding when our minds do not work in a lawlike way.

Solan explains that these cases arise because of the gap between our inability to write crisp yet flexible laws on one hand and the ways in which our cognitive and linguistic faculties are structured on the other. Making our lives easier and more efficient, we’re predisposed to absorb new situations into categories we have previously formed—but in the legislative and judicial realms this can present major difficulties. Solan provides an excellent introduction to statutory interpretation, rejecting the extreme arguments that judges have either too much or too little leeway, and explaining how and why a certain number of interpretive problems are simply inevitable.

304 pages | 1 halftone, 1 line drawing, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Chicago Series in Law and Society

Law and Legal Studies: General Legal Studies, Legal Thought


"Larry Solan’s The Language of Statutes is a worthy successor to his The Language of Judges, which remains the best introduction to the value of linguistic analysis to statutory interpretation. The new book explores the jurisprudential as well as practical payoffs of language scholarship for statutory interpretation. The Language of Statutes is a must-read for any serious student of the debates about the rule of lenity, legislative intent, and the new textualism. It is a triumph of reason and learning—plus, the book is an enjoyable read. The linguistic adventures of the Rossi family alone is worth the price of this informative tome."

William N. Eskridge Jr. | Yale Law School

"This is an excellent book, with a fairly radical message: statutory interpretation generally works fine. Solan’s argument—that there is no single right process in difficult cases, and that judges do and should use a variety of approaches—comes across in sharp, well-written prose. Helpful and persuasive in its use of legislative history and other controversial topics, The Language of Statutes is a book of tremendous value for both students and scholars. Thorough, fair, insightful, and accessible, this book is destined to be the authoritative text on American statutory interpretation for some time to come."

Brian H. Bix | University of Minnesota

"Lawrence M. Solan offers a well-executed introduction to statutory governance, the inevitability of interpretive problems, and an excellent account of the state of the art and its tensions. The book’s greatest strength is its lively and interesting use of cases to illustrate the concepts, rules, or debates that have just been introduced. From Solan’s wonderful use of very simple, everyday examples to his lucid explanation of the necessity of judicial discretion in difficult cases, The Language of Statutes will encourage a lot of readers to take an interest in interpretation who might otherwise have merely suffered it as a necessary part of the job. Thorough and professional, not overreaching in its claims, and filled with confidence in its reasoning and conclusions, this is an innovative look at an increasingly important field."—Michael B. W. Sinclair, New York Law School

Michael B. W. Sinclair, New York Law School

"A balanced, pragmatic view of statutory interpretation and the role of the courts, welcome, I’d say, in a U.S. climate where otherwise reasonable people can say that judges should simply apply laws mechanically and leave the creativity to the legislatures entirely."

Simon Fodden | Slaw Blog

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Laws and Judges
Chapter 2. Why We Need to Interpret Statutes
Chapter 3. Definitions, Ordinary Meaning, and Respect for the Legislature
Chapter 4. The Intent of the Legislature
Chapter 5. Stability, Dynamism, and Other Values
Chapter 6. Who Should Interpret Statutes?
Chapter 7. Jurors as Statutory Interpreters
Chapter 8. Legislatures, Judges, and Statutory Interpretation

Appendix. Two Mail Fraud Jury Instructions



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