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Unpublished Paper
Words, Meanings, and Plain Language Interpretation
ExpressO (2010)
  • John Zingarelli
Courts routinely decide cases in accordance with the Plain Language Rule, which requires a literal interpretation of statutes wherever such statements are clear and do not lead to a result manifestly at odds with the intent of the legislation. The rule directs that once a plain meaning has been obtained further interpretation should cease, and that a court should consider no non-statutory material that would serve to destabilize or change the plain meaning. The rule, however, ignores an insight that has become fundamental to lexicography. More than 250 years ago Samuel Johnson demonstrated in his Dictionary of the English Language that common words display such a large range of meanings that it is impossible to designate any one of them as being primary. If meanings are separate from words, then neither words nor statutes will be linked semantically to anything. The words of a text, therefore, can only say what they say, and not what they mean. While plain language interpretation is a species of interpretation because it does select an unstated meaning, it undermines the interpretative process by refusing to decide among competing meanings. Rather than weighing arguments for one meaning or another, it selects a meaning that is presupposed to represent the equivalent of the words of the text. The discovery that primary meanings of words do not exist implies that these plain language meaning-equivalents are illusory, and are based upon the subjective experience of the interpreter rather than upon objective properties of the text. The recognition of this principle provides the basis for discovering the errors hidden in plain language cases, and exposes the failure of the plain language interpreters to address issues presented for determination.
  • plain,
  • meaning,
  • ordinary,
  • natural,
  • normal,
  • literal
Publication Date
May 27, 2010
Citation Information
John Zingarelli. "Words, Meanings, and Plain Language Interpretation" ExpressO (2010)
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