Corpus Linguistics: Misfire or More Ammo for the Ordinary-Meaning Canon?

John D. Ramer*

Scholars and judges have heralded corpus linguistics—the study of language through collections of spoken or written texts—as a novel tool for statutory interpretation that will help provide an answer in the occasionally ambiguous search for “ordinary meaning” using dictionaries. In the spring of 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court became the first to use corpus linguistics in a majority opinion. The dissent also used it, however, and the two opinions reached different conclusions. In the first true test for corpus linguistics, the answer seemed to be just as ambiguous as before.

This result calls into question the utility of corpus linguistics. If the Michigan Supreme Court could reach opposite conclusions about the ordinary meaning of a word when both opinions used the same database, can one really consider corpus linguistics an effective aid to statutory interpretation? This Note first argues that the Michigan Supreme Court’s majority opinion conducted a flawed search of the database and that the dissent’s contrary conclusion was correct.

In addition, this Note contends that transparency—the greatest strength of corpus linguistics—outweighs the risk that judges may fail to use a corpus-linguistics database accurately because that transparency permits advocates, other judges, and legal scholars to review the court’s analysis, aiding appellate review. Lastly, this Note includes recommended steps to guide the use of a corpus-linguistics database in the search for ordinary meaning.

*J.D. Candidate, December 2017, University of Michigan Law School. I would first like to thank my wife Whitney for her love, patience, and encouragement during the experience that is law school. I would also like to thank my parents, James and Jane, and my sister Libby for their unwavering support. Finally, I want to thank everyone at the Michigan Law Review for their excellent editing.

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