March 02, 2012
Judge Posner and Corpus Linguistics
Posted by Gordon Smith

In a recent opinion, Judge Posner wanted to know more about the meaning of "harboring," and he didn't find what he wanted in a dictionary. "Dictionary definitions are acontextual," he wrote, "whereas the meaning of sentences depends critically on context,including all sorts of background understandings."

I wish he would have cited The Best Student Comment Ever, aka The Dictionary Is Not a Fortress: Definitional Fallacies and a Corpus-Based Approach to Plain Meaning. If he had, he would have discovered corpus linguistics, and that might have led him to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).

As it was, he simply turned to Google. While it's true that Google is a corpus -- check out the Web as Corpus Community -- it's not a very good way to do what Posner was trying to do, which was to find the ordinary meaning of "harboring." 

Judge Posner should have just called Utah Supreme Court Justice Tom Lee for some tips. Justice Lee has used corpus linguistics in two opinions (see here for the first one), with the help of Stephen Mouritsen (author of the aforementioned comment).

Have I mentioned that I think corpus linguistics is a big deal that is going to transform legal scholarship? If not, I just wanted to get that on the record because I have been telling everyone I know.

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