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8.3: Semantics and pragmatics in the legal domain

  • Page ID
    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

    Before we talk more about non-at-issue meaning, let’s consider why it’s important for us to study linguistic meaning, and how what we are learning about meaning in this textbook might have an impact on our lives.

    One immediate way in which linguistic meaning has an impact on our lives is how meaning affects the law. This can range from how a legal contract is to be interpreted to how statements are to be interpreted in court. We discussed in Chapter 7 that words are not static in their meaning: depending on the context, they can take on

    A digital painting of a brown striped cat. The cat sitting upright and facing forwards. Above the cat is a speech bubble with a green outline. Background is a bright, saturated orange with a floral pattern. The floral pattern consists of four visible rows of alternating dark orange and white flowers. Brown polka dots are also scattered in the background.
    Figure 8.2. A digital drawing of a cat.

    various interpretations. Oftentimes, we as humans are good at using context cues to figure out the intended meaning. For example, if we are looking at the digital drawing in Figure 8.2 and utter “That cat is so cute!”, most adult English users likely do not get confused about the fact that cat does not refer to an actual cat in this context. Cat in this context means something like ‘drawing of a cat’. And even if an utterance is truly ambiguous, the momentary confusion is likely not harmful in everyday conversations. In a legal context however, how something is to be interpreted can be life-changing, so an informed understanding of types of linguistic meaning and possible sources of ambiguity is critical.

    One interesting legal case from 1960 (Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B. N. S. Int’l Sales Corp.) concerned a dispute over the meaning of the word chicken in a contract. The contract stated an agreement that the defendant would send the plaintiff some chicken. The plaintiff thought that chicken in the contract meant ‘(young) stewing chicken’, but the defendant thought it meant ‘chicken’ more generally. So when the defendant sent the plaintiff (mature) frying chicken, the plaintiff claimed this was a breach of the agreement in the contract. One of the issues in this case was that in the poultry trade language community, chicken indeed is used to refer to young chicken. What had to be decided in court was whether it was also possible for it to have the general ‘chicken’ interpretation in this particular context: was the term chicken ambiguous? The court ruled in favour of the defendant: it was reasonable for chicken to be interpreted in the general sense because it had been used that way at least once during the negotiation (among other factors).

    In another case in 2017 (State of La. v. Demesme), the supposed ambiguity was with the word dog. Plaintiff Warren Demesme was being questioned for a suspected crime by the police, and during the questioning Demesme asked for legal counsel, saying “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer dawg”. This was not taken to be a request for a lawyer, and Demesme was therefore not given a lawyer at the time. Demesme sued. In the view of the prosecution, “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog (dawg)” was non-sensical or at least ambiguous. The claim was that dog could be interpreted as ‘canine’. According to the Louisiana Supreme Court, it was possible for the interrogator to think that Demesme was requesting a canine lawyer. However what Demesme meant, of course, was dawg, a second-person form of address like dude. Ultimately, the court ruled in favour of the state of Louisiana and decided that what Demesme said did not count as a request for legal counsel. What we learned in Chapter 7 tells us yes, dog is in principle ambiguous. However, you may have the intuition that the ruling in this case feels unreasonable. This chapter will help us explain why this feels that way. It should also be flagged that Demesme is Black and spoke in a dialect of English called African American English during his conversation. This case also relates to the discussion from Chapter 2 (Language and Power) and how someone’s preconceived ideas about groups of people can affect how utterances are perceived and interpreted, often unfairly.

    This chapter will also discuss implicatures and how they arise in discourse. Another legal case, Bronston v. United States (1973), gives us insight into why it is important for us to study how implicatures are created. This case from 1973 involved Samuel Bronston, who was a movie producer who filed for federal bankruptcy protection. During this process, he was being asked in court about his financial history. Here is how the conversation between the examiner and Bronston went.

    (1) Examiner:   Do you have any bank accounts in Swiss banks, Mr. Bronston?
      Bronston:   No, sir.
      Examiner:   Have you ever?
      Bronston:   The company had an account there for about six months, in Zürich.
      Examiner:   Have you any nominees who have bank accounts in Swiss banks?
      Bronston:   No, sir.
      Examiner:   Have you ever?
      Bronston:   No, sir.

    The relevant part of this conversation is the bolded statement made by Bronston. He was asked whether he ever had a (personal) Swiss bank account. His answer to this was “The company had an account there”. If you are not familiar with this case, you probably inferred what the court inferred from this statement: that Bronston’s company had a Swiss bank account, but Bronston himself never personally did. The conversational logic is that if it was true that Bronston himself had a Swiss account, he would’ve said so. But he didn’t, so what he said — that the company had a Swiss account — must have been the most truthful and most informative thing he could say.

    There’s a plot twist to this story: Bronston actually did have a personal Swiss bank account. When this fact was revealed later, there was a debate as to whether Bronston had committed perjury: lying under oath in court. The catch here is that the literal words Bronston uttered in the conversation in (1) contain no lies: it’s actually also true that his company had a Swiss bank account. It is also the case that the sentence The company had an account there for about six months, in Zürich does not entail that Bronston himself didn’t have a Swiss account. This is merely an implicature. What he did was refrain from giving other relevant, truthful information, which misled the court to believe that the answer to “Have you (personally) ever had a Swiss bank account” was “No.”

    What do you think? If someone misleads the addressee to believe something false because of an implicature they created, does that count as lying? In ordinary cases, such as in regular everyday conversation, it’s certainly true that this still feels like deception. In this legal case, the United States Supreme Court decided that this did NOT count as perjury. The decision was based on the fact that Bronston genuinely believed his response to be true. It was not actually clear if he intended to mislead the examiner. The Supreme Court held that it was the examiner‘s responsibility to recognise that Bronston was avoiding answering the question that was posed, and to get the relevant answer by asking follow-up questions.

    There are other cases, however, in which people have been held accountable for implicatures they created. For example, in Dahan v. Haim (2017), which was a small claims dispute in Israel, a landlord put up an ad for an apartment online. The prospective tenant showed interest in the apartment. (2) is what this potential tenant texted to the landlord (the text was originally in Hebrew).

    (2)     Good Morning 😊 interested in the house 💃👯‍♀️✌️☄️🐿 🍾 just need to discuss the details…When’s a good time for you?

    Based on this message, the landlord inferred that this person (and their partner) was going to rent the apartment, and removed the ad online. After some conversation about when the contract could be signed, the potential tenants disappeared and fell out of touch. Because of this, the landlord sued them claiming reliance: a type of contract law that says you can file suit for damages if someone doesn’t follow through with a deal that you both have agreed on.

    The Judge decided that the emojis (among other factors) conveyed optimism. Although this wasn’t a binding contract, the Judge decided that it was reasonable for the plaintiff (the landlord) to conclude that the couple intended to rent the apartment. The message in (2) doesn’t literally say that they will be renting the apartment. It doesn’t entail that; it just strongly implies so. In this case, the defendant was held accountable for this implicature.

    As we can see from these legal cases, it very much matters in real life what sorts of implicatures a speaker creates. This is a good reason for us to study not just semantics but also pragmatics — how meaning is used in context — and the mechanism of how non-at-issue meaning like implicatures arise in discourse. In this chapter, we will explore what different kinds of non-at-issue meanings there are in language.

    Check your understanding

    This is a discussion question with no right answer. Can you think of situations you have personally been in where someone made a misleading implicature? Why did you infer what you inferred? What contextual cues led you to infer it? Did you feel deceived when this happened? Or maybe you were the one who accidentally created an implicature you did not intended; in that case, why do you think the other person inferred what they inferred? Did the other person accuse you of lying, and if so, did you feel that it was fair or unfair?


    Ben-Yishay, C. (2019). Judge in Israel has Ruled that Emoji can Prove Intent in a Landlord/Tenant Case.

    López, L. (2021). Did Samuel Bronston Commit Perjury? A Study in Discourse Semantics. International Journal of Language & Law, 10.

    Malloy, M. P. (2018). Everywhere a Cluck-Cluck: Frigaliment Importing Co. v. BNS Int’l Sales Corp.

    Menscher, K. (2021). Thank you, I Emoji Your Offer: Emojis Translating Acceptance in Contracts.

    Tabler, N. (2018). The Unspeakable Comma. Fed. Law., 65, 18-18.

    This page titled 8.3: Semantics and pragmatics in the legal domain is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.