Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Linguistic Meaning and the Law


Decisions of guilt or innocence can turn on how a piece of ambiguous legal language gets interpreted. Often, however, the ambiguity is hidden and the commonsense interpretation is at odds with legal judgment, which may not even engage with the ambiguity.

This course will use the analytical tools of semantics and pragmatics—the study of the meaning and use of language—to understand the tension between ordinary linguistic interpretation and legal interpretation. We will investigate how inherent properties of language—such as  ambiguity, vagueness, and context-dependence—play into the meaning of a legal text, and how the meaning of a law can remain invariant while its range of application can change with the facts and with our discovery of what the facts are. Our focus will be on the perspective linguistic analysis brings to legal theory, addressing current controversies surrounding different conceptions of 'textualism' and drawing on well-known examples of legal reasoning about language in cases of identity fraud, obstruction of justice, and genocide.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Cleo Condoravdi

Cleo Condoravdi is a professor of linguistics. She works closely with the Center for the Study of Language and Information, particularly in the language and natural reasoning group. Her work examines topics including free choice, modality and temporality, and imperatives and performatives.