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What are some domains of law, where linguistic interpretations can be very vague and multi-interpretable?

By this I mean domains, where it's not very easy to understand what has happened, what's right/wrong etc. Due to the "description" of it being e.g. very subject-dependent.


An example that I've e.g. thought:

A rape is interpretable, if there's physical objective evidence for it.

However, as some have adjusted the legal concept of rape to be distinguishable based on e.g. "whether the subject has or has not accepted the sexual intercourse", then this may become more vague, because people can change their opinion. So a person may e.g. draw an accusation of rape by changing the opinion about, whether the action was voluntary or not. And there's potentially no subject-dependent evidence for clarifying, whether it's a rape or not. If it depends on "whether a subject says it's voluntary or not", since there may not be an objective way to reveal "voluntarity".


But also, is multi-interpretability a real concern?

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  • "So a person may e.g. draw an accusation of rape by changing the opinion" What person? you mean the prosecutor? or the one involved in the sexual act? Sep 11 '21 at 22:28
  • @IñakiViggers The victim may claim it's a rape, when it wasn't due to having some other interest in getting someone else judged for a crime. And since it's possible that in some cases rape and non-rape appear quite similar in evidence. The only differing factor being, whether the victim says it has his/her consent or not (which is an opinion and can be changed w/o reference to what's "actual"). It's about the same as basing a contract on "verbal agreement", which is not good, because no tangible evidence is left about "what was agreed on".
    – mavavilj
    Sep 12 '21 at 5:09
  • (Unless I've misinterpreted the OP's meaning) I disagree with the premise that consent is an opinion and can be changed w/o reference to what's "actual". In E&W consent is given, or not given, at the time of penile penetration. Whether anyone (the penetrator, police, jury etc) believes the recipient based on the available evidence is another matter entirely.
    – Rick
    Oct 12 '21 at 12:24
  • Re: ... some have adjusted the legal concept of rape to be distinguishable based on e.g. "whether the subject has or has not accepted the sexual intercourse" that is (or words to that effect and as far as I am aware) always been the definition of rape - so can you cite a reputable source showing what it has been adjusted from?
    – Rick
    Oct 12 '21 at 12:32
  • @RockApe In FInland there has been discussion in the recent years about adjusting the definition of rape to distinguish between "forced" and "based on voluntary acceptance". Suggesting that to distinguish based on "acceptance" is a novel view and based on shortcomings of earlier definition. helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/191351
    – mavavilj
    Oct 12 '21 at 14:25
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One domain with lots of confusion is the names of natural persons (that is, excluding corporations and similar entities that are sometimes considered legal persons).

One difficulty is the lack of consistent meanings in different areas of the law. "Legal name" or "full name" can mean one thing to the department of motor vehicles in a state, something else to the US State Department (which issues passports) and something else again to the Social Security Administration. Examples of the difficulties this causes can be found at the National Immigration Law Center or the need for the New Jersey DMV to create an online guide to help figure out if the name on one document matches their name on another document, in the view of the NJ DMV.

A related area of difficulty is that many legal matters these days are not dealt with routinely by people; they are dealt with by computers, which must be programmed. If the program won't accept a name, delays may result leading to practical and financial consequences, such as not being allowed to travel and forfeiting the value of non-refundable tickets. In some cases expensive lawsuits may need to be brought to correct issues. I see an essay by Patrick McKenzie, "Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names", frequently mentioned online in this context.

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You've described the subject matter of the discipline of language and law within linguistics. Insofar as all law is promulgated with linguistic expressions and the potential for ambiguity in language is very high, there are plenty of examples, indeed an enterprise of taxonomizing the types of ambiguity. In addition, the legal profession has adopted a number of interpretive approaches to resolving these ambiguities. Larry Solan and Peter Tiersma are two academic linguists who are also law professors, and have written extensively on such matters, thus I recommend virtually everything that they have written.

Some examples: what is a "person"? Is a corporation a "person"? Is a tomato a "fruit"? What is a "vehicle" (see Eskridge Interpreting law). These are examples where the referent of the word is legitimately in question. Your example is legally unrealistic (though in the realm of philosophy and literary criticism might be plausible), because the law does not define rape in terms of "accepting the sexual intercourse". Instead, it relies on the concept of "consent", which has little referential ambiguity, but where separate questions of evidence are prominent. Another example of expression-ambiguity made famous from the Clinton trial is "have sex".

Solan (in The language of judges) especially analyzes structural ambiguity where there are two or more possible scopes for a modifier, as might arise in a legal string such as "with a knife, club or weapon designed to inflict pain". The question is whether a butter knife is included, since it is not designed to inflict pain. There is a principle of legal interpretation, the last antecedent rule, which says that "designed to inflict pain" only modifies "weapon" (but there are other interpretive canons that allow other interpretations, so this is not a hard and fast rule).

Antonin Scalia also wrote extensively on the topic, writing in favor of "more strict" linguistically-informed interpretations of legal texts.

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What are some domains of law, where linguistic interpretations can be very vague and multi-interpretable?

This is true in all areas of law involving statutory interpretation (including interpretation of regulations and ordinances), interpretation of case law, contract or legal document interpretation, and interpretation of witness testimony.

It is a pervasive issue in everything from traffic law to tax law to criminal law to constitutional law to immigration law and more.

The job of lawyers is to navigate these waters, explaining how something seemingly clear can actually be vague, and how something seemingly multi-interpretable has a correct resolution in a particular context. This is the bread and butter of what lawyers and judges do, all day, every day.

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  • I don't know how realistic it was, but in many "Law and Order" episodes the DA would come up with "clever" interpretations of laws in order to find something to charge the perpetrator with.
    – Barmar
    Oct 12 '21 at 21:15
  • @Barmar It happens, but usually the reverse is true. More often a DA declines to pursue a very supportable reading of a criminal statute with little prior precedent in favor of a smaller number of very pedestrian charges. DAs like to work with what they know and is well proven.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 12 '21 at 21:19

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