6 N.Y.U. J. Legis. & Pub. Pol'y 401 (2002-2003)
Parse the Sentence First: Curbing the Urge to Resort to the Dictionary when Interpreting Legal Texts

handle is hein.journals/nyulpp6 and id is 407 raw text is: PARSE THE SENTENCE FIRST: CURBING
THE URGE TO RESORT TO THE
DICTIONARY WHEN INTERPRETING
LEGAL TEXTS
Craig Hoffman*
In the Middle Ages, leeches seemed like a good idea to medical
practitioners. Acting on an instinct that bad blood was the source of
many observed maladies, practitioners hypothesized that using leeches
to rid the body of the bad blood could solve the noted problems. Em-
pirically, some patients seemed to recover after the leech treatments,
so the practice continued. Not until scientists and physicians began to
understand the workings of the body more fully did the practice give
way to what we know as modern medicine. Although leeches may
still have their uses in medicine, their primacy has waned.
Recently, dictionaries have seemed like a good idea to judges.
Acting on an instinct that determining the meaning of a sentence re-
quires no more than defining the individual words that comprise it,
judges habitually turn to dictionaries when faced with indeterminacy
in interpreting statutory sentences. As with leeches in the Middle
Ages, dictionaries sometimes address the interpretive puzzles judges
are trying to solve, and the practice continues. However, just as medi-
cal science has progressed since the time of leech treatments, the sci-
ence of linguistics has progressed since the time that scholars believed
that dictionaries held the key to sentence meaning.
Dictionaries simply are not capable of explaining complex lin-
guistic phenomena, but they are seductive. Because dictionaries tell
us so much about the meanings and uses of individual words, it is
tempting to extend their authority beyond what is warranted. The urge
to define, however, is often irresistible. We have all read novice at-
tempts at statutory interpretation, invariably encumbered by an in-
stinctive reach for a dictionary. Lawyers continue to make dictionary
* Associate Professor of Legal Research and Writing, Georgetown University
Law Center. J.D., 1985, University of Texas Law School; M.A., Ph.D., 1981, Linguis-
tics University of Connecticut; B.A., 1977, College of William & Mary. I would like
to thank Georgetown University Law Center for its support through a Summer Writ-
ing Grant.
401

Imaged with the Permission of NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy

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