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Ordinary Meaning

A Theory of the Most Fundamental Principle of Legal Interpretation

Consider this court case: a defendant has traded a gun for drugs, and there is a criminal sentencing provision that stipulates an enhanced punishment if the defendant “uses” a firearm “during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime.” Buying the drugs was obviously a crime—but can it be said that the defendant actually “used” the gun during the crime? This sort of question is at the heart of legal interpretation.
Legal interpretation is built around one key question: by what standard should legal texts be interpreted? The traditional doctrine is that words should be given their “ordinary meaning”: words in legal texts should be interpreted in light of accepted standards of communication. Yet often, courts fail to properly consider context, refer to unsuitable dictionary definitions, or otherwise misconceive how the ordinary meaning of words should be determined. In this book, Brian Slocum builds his argument for a new method of interpretation by asking glaring, yet largely ignored, questions. What makes one particular meaning the “ordinary” one, and how exactly do courts conceptualize the elements of ordinary meaning? Ordinary Meaning provides a much-needed, revised framework, boldly instructing those involved with the law in how the components of ordinary meaning should properly be identified and developed in our modern legal system.

344 pages | 2 line drawings, 17 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Language and Linguistics: Language and Law

Law and Legal Studies: Legal Thought


"Slocum explores problems with the legal doctrine of 'ordinary meaning' for words in legal interpretation, including failure to address a word's context."


“'Ordinary meaning’ ought to be the central focus of legal interpretation. Slocum’s book by the same name is a deep, thoughtful, and useful examination of the jurisprudence and practice of legal meaning, especially for statutes. In Ordinary Meaning, Slocum offers a rigorous methodology for thinking about and researching ordinary meaning in some “hard cases.” Additionally, he takes the Supreme Court to school in several devastating criticisms of ordinary meaning analysis offered by the Justices.”

William Eskridge, Yale University

“This book is an articulate and sophisticated analysis of the “ordinary meaning” doctrine, showing how it is still relatively unpredictable, nuanced, and susceptible to manipulation. Provocative and persuasive, Slocum’s extensive study offers conclusions that few other legal scholars can provide—and none with the same level of credibility and brilliance.”

Steve Calandrillo, University of Washington School of Law

“The concept of "plain meaning" and the interpretive rule of the same name have played a central role in the theory and practice of legal interpretation for a very long time. Slocum's important new book shows the hidden complications within both the concept and the rule. His analysis in Ordinary Meaning is consistently clear, insightful, and persuasive, and it will be a great help to law students, lawyers, and even—or especially—judges.”

Brian Bix, University of Minnesota

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Ordinary Meaning Doctrine
Chapter 2. Hypothetical Intentionalism and Communicative Content
Chapter 3. The Constitutive and Evidential Aspects of Ordinary Meaning
Chapter 4. Ordinary Meaning, “What Is Said” and “What Is Communicated”
Chapter 5. Ordinary Meaning and Lexical Semantics
Chapter 6. Conclusion

Appendix A. Synonyms for Ordinary Meaning
Appendix B. Supreme Court Cases Using Ordinary Meaning
Appendix C. Cases since 1986 Where the Supreme Court Used “Literal Meaning” as a Synonym for Ordinary Meaning
Appendix D. Recent Supreme Court Cases Regarding Ordinary Meaning with Dissenting Opinions


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