When Judges Reach for the Dictionary, Be Very Afraid

The New York Times has just published this depressing article by Adam Liptak on judges citing dictionaries. (To access it, you’ll need to comply with the NYT’s subscription plan.)

For the reasons cited in the article, it’s generally a bad sign when a judge cites a dictionary. In particular, the notion of judges seeking to clarify the language of statutes and contracts by consulting dictionary definitions of words such as now, also, any, and if is preposterous. Seeking to attribute meaning to basic words divorced of any context is a recipe for semantic disaster. I’ve just submitted an article regarding a recent decision that went off the rails in part because of undue reliance on a dictionary.

The New York Times article should be required reading for anyone who still believes in the sanctity of the meaning attributed to contract language by judges. (For more about “tested” contract language, see this June 2006 post on AdamsDrafting.)

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.