Corpus Linguistics in Legal Interpretation. An Evolving Interpretative Framework

Stephen Mouritsen


When called upon to interpret the undefined words in a legal text, U.S. judges will often invoke a rule (or canon) of interpretation called the “plain meaning rule,” which holds that if the language of the text is clear and unambiguous, courts cannot consider any extrinsic evidence to determine what the text means. But U.S. courts have no uniform definition of what “plain meaning” actually means and no systematic method for discovering and resolving ambiguities in legal texts. Faced with these challenges, some U.S. judges and academics have recently begun to consider the use of corpus linguistics to resolve uncertainties in the interpretation of legal texts. A corpus-based approach to legal interpretation promises to increase the objectivity and predictability of decisions about the meanings of legal texts. However, such an approach also presents a number of theoretical problems that must be addressed before corpus methods can be fully incorporated into a theory of legal interpretation. This article documents this recent turn to corpus linguistics in legal interpretation and outlines some of the challenges facing the corpus-based approach to legal interpretation.

Cite as: Mouritsen, JLL 6 (2017), 67–89, DOI: 10.14762/jll.2017.067



corpus linguistics, statutory interpretation, legal interpretation, plain meaning, ordinary meaning, legal linguistics

Full Text:



Bintliff, Barbara (1996). From Creativity to Computerese: Thinking Like a Lawyer in the Computer Age. Law Library Journal, 88, 338–351.

Brudney, James J. & Baum, Lawrence (2013). Oasis or Mirage: The Supreme Court's Thirst for Dictionaries in the Rehnquist and Roberts Eras. William & Mary Law Review, 55, 483–580. Available at wmlawre

Dickerson, F. Reed (1961). The Electronic Searching of Law. American Bar Association Journal, 47, 902–908. Available at

Dickerson, Reed (1983). Statutory Interpretation: Dipping Into Legislative History. Hofstra Law Review, 11, 1125–1162. Available at

Easterbrook, Frank H. (1994). Text History, and Structure in Statutory Interpretation. Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 17, 61–70. Available at

Eskridge Jr., William (2016). Interpreting Law: A Primer on How to Read Statutes and the Constitution. St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.

Goldfarb, Neal (forthcoming 2017). Words, Meanings, Corpora: A Lawyer’s introduction to Meaning in the Framework of Corpus Linguistics. Brigham Young University Law Review.

Gries, Stefan Th. & Slocum, Brian (forthcoming 2017). Ordinary Meaning and Corpus Linguistics. Brigham Young University Law Review.

Hamann, Hanjo & Vogel, Friedemann (forthcoming 2017). Evidence-Based Jurisprudence Meet s Legal Linguistics—Unlikely Blends Made In Germany. Brigham Young University Law Review.

Hart Jr., Henry M. & Sacks, Albert M. (1994). The Legal Process: Basic Problems in Making and Application of Law (Eskridge, Jr. & Frickey eds.). Westbury, NY: Foundation Press.

Hietala Jr., James R. (2014). Linguistic Key Words in E-Discovery. American Journal of Trial Advocacy, 37, 603–620.

Hofer, Paul J. (2000). Federal Sentencing for Violent and Drug Trafficking Crimes Involving Firearms: Recent Changes and Prospects for Improvement. American Criminal Law Review, 37, 41–74.

Kilgarriff, Adam (2007). Googleology Is Bad Science. Computational Linguistics, 33(1), 147–151. DOI: 10.1162/ coli.2007.33.1.147.

Kredens, Krzysztof & Coulthard, Malcolm (2012). Corpus Linguistics in Authorship Identification. In Solan & Tiersma (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law (pp. 489–510). Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press.

Lee, Thomas R. & Mouritsen, Stephen C. (forthcoming 2017). Judging Ordinary Meaning. Yale Law Journal, 126.

Leonard, Robert A. (2008). Declaration in Opposition to Microsoft Corp.’s Motion for Summary Judgment, In the Matter of Application Serial No. 77/525,433.

Levi, Judith (2008). Expert Declaration in Support of Whirlpool Corporation’s Memorandum of Law Opposing LG’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction. LG Electronics U.S.A. v. Whirlpool Corp., No. 08-C-2008 WL 670474 (N.D. Ill.)

Levy, Douglas (2016). Zahra Instructs Lawyers on Corpus Linguistics. Michigan Lawyers Weekly, 5 Oct.

Lien, Molly Warner (1998). Technocentrism and the Soul of the Common Law Lawyer. American University Law Review, 48, 85–86. Available at

Mascott, Jennifer L. (forthcoming 2017). The Dictionary as a Specialized Corpus. Brigham Young University Law Review.

McEnery, Tony & Wilson, Andrew (2001). Corpus Linguistics: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Edinburgh (UK): Edinburgh University Press.

Melton, Jessica S. & Bensing, Robert C. (1961). Searching Legal Literature Electronically: Results of a Test Program. Minnesota Law Review, 45, 229–248.

Mouritsen, Stephen (2010). The Dictionary Is Not a Fortress: Definitional Fallacies and a Corpus-Based Approach to Plain Meaning. Brigham Young University Law Review, 1915–1979. Available at

Mouritsen, Stephen (2011). Hard Cases and Hard Data: Assessing Corpus Linguistics as an Empirical Path to Plain Meaning. Columbia Science and Technology Law Review, 13, 156–205. Available at cite.cgi?volume=13&article=4.

Note (1967). The Use of Data Processing in Legal Research. Michigan Law Review, 65, 987–994. DOI: dx.doi. org/10.2307/1287094.

Note (1993–1994). Looking It Up: Dictionaries and Statutory Interpretation. Harvard Law Review, 107, 1437–1454. DOI: 10.2307/1341851.

Note (2016). Statutory Interpretation—Interpretative Tools—Utah Supreme Court Debates Judicial Use of Corpus Linguistics—State v. Rasabout, 356 P.3d 1258 (Utah 2015). Harvard Law Review, 129, 1468–1475. Available at

Nourse, Victoria F. & Schacter, Jane S. (2002). The Politics of Legislative Drafting: A Congressional Case Study. New York University Law Review, 77, 575–624. Available at

O’Keeffe, Anne & McCarthy, Michael (2010). The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor & Francis.

Ortner, Daniel (2016). The Merciful Corpus: The Rule of Lenity, Ambiguity and Corpus Linguistics. Boston University Public Interest Law Journal, 25, 101–142.

Phillips, James C., Ortner, Daniel M. & Lee, Thomas R. (2016). Corpus Linguistics & Original Public Meaning: A New Tool To Make Originalism More Empirical. Yale Law Journal Forum, 126, 21–32. Available at

Phillips, James C. & Egbert, Jesse (forthcoming 2017). Improving Corpus Design and Corpus-Based Analysis for Linguists and Lawyers: Principles and Practices from Survey and Content-Analysis Methodologies. Brigham Young University Law Review.

Posner, Richard A. (2013). Reflections on Judging. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Gordon (2011). A Landmark Opinion: Corpus Linguistics in the Courts. The Conglomerate, 19 Jul. Available at

Smith, Gordon (2016). Michigan Supreme Court Embraces Corpus Linguistics. The Conglomerate, 28 Jun. Available at

Solan, Lawrence M. (2005). The New Textualist’s New Text. Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, 38, 2027–2062. Available at

Solan, Lawrence M. (2016). Can Corpus Linguistics Help Make Originalism Scientific? Yale Law Journal Forum, 126, 57–64. Available at ism-scientific.

Solan, Lawrence M. & Gales, Tammy (forthcoming 2017). Corpus Linguistics as a Tool in Legal Interpretation. Brigham Young University Law Review.

Solum, Lawrence B. (2016). Conference Hopping: BYU, Melbourne, Monash, and Chicago. Legal Theory Blog, 1 May. Available at ne-monash-and-chicgo.html.

Solum, Lawrence B. (forthcoming 2017). Originalist Methodology and Corpus Linguistics. Brigham Young University Law Review.

Strang, Lee J. (forthcoming 2017). The Original Meaning of “Religion” in the First Amendment: A Test Case for Originalism’s Utilization of Corpus Linguistics. Brigham Young University Law Review.

Sunstein, Cass R. (1997). Behavioral Analysis of Law. The University of Chicago Law Review, 64, 1175–1196. Available at

Thomas, Virginia C. (2016). Of Plain English and Plain Meaning. Michigan Bar Journal, 95, 60–61. Available at

Thornburg, Elizabeth G. (2008). The Curious Appellate Judge: Ethical Limits on Independent Research. The Review of Litigation, 28, 131–202. Available at

Thumma, Samuel A. & Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L. (1999). The Lexicon Has Become a Fortress: The United States Supreme Court’s Use of Dictionaries. Buffalo Law Review, 47, 227–561. Available at abstract=920511.

Thumma, Samuel A. & Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L. (2010). Scaling the Lexicon Fortress: The United States Supreme Court’s Use of Dictionaries in the Twenty-First Century. Marquette Law Review, 94, 77–262. Available at

Véronis, Jean (1998). A Study of Polysemy Judgements and Inter-Annotator Agreement. Programme and Advanced Papers of the Senseval Workshop, Herstmonceux. Available at 5c6ed403456564215bf1f32924032d68f427.pdf.

Volokh, Eugene (2015). Judges and ‘corpus linguistics’. The Volokh Conspiracy, 17 Aug. Available at

West, John B. (1909). Multiplicity of Reports. Law Library Journal, 2, 4–7.

Whelan, Ed (2015). Corpus Linguistics as Interpretive Tool. Bench Memos, 19 Aug. Available at

Zimmer, Ben (2011). The Corpus in the Court: ‘Like Lexis on Steroids’. The Atlantic, 4 Mar. Available at



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2017 Stephen Mouritsen

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.