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Plain meaning

June 26th, 2015

In its reporting on yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell, Vox’s Matthew Yglesias makes the important point that Justice Scalia’s dissent is based on a profound misunderstanding of how language works. Justice Scalia would have it that “words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is ‘established by the state.’” The Justice is implicitly appealing to a “plain meaning” view of legislation: courts should just take the plain meaning of a law and not interpret it.

If only that were possible. If you think there’s such a thing as acquiring the “plain meaning” of a text without performing any interpretive inference, you don’t understand how language works. It’s the same mistake that fundamentalists make when they talk about looking to the plain meaning of the Bible. (And which Bible would that be anyway? The King James Version? Translation requires the same kind of inferential process – arguably the same actual process – as extracting meaning through reading.)

Yglesias describes “What Justice Scalia’s King v. Burwell dissent gets wrong about words and meaning” this way:

Individual stringz of letterz r efforts to express meaningful propositions in an intelligible way. To succeed at this mission does not require the youse of any particular rite series of words and, in fact, a sntnce fll of gibberish cn B prfctly comprehensible and meaningful 2 an intelligent reader. To understand a phrse or paragraf or an entire txt rekwires the use of human understanding and contextual infrmation not just a dctionry.

The jokey orthography aside, this observation that understanding the meaning of linguistic utterances requires the application of knowledge and inference is completely uncontroversial to your average linguist. Too bad Supreme Court justices don’t defer to linguists on how language works.

Let’s take a simple example, the original “Winograd sentences” from back in 1973:

  1. The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.
  2. The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence.

To understand these sentences, to recover their “plain meaning”, requires resolving to whom the pronoun ‘they’ refers. Is it the city councilmen or the demonstrators? Clearly, it is the former in sentence (1) and the latter in sentence (2). How do you know, given that the two sentences differ only in the single word alternation ‘feared’/‘advocated’? The recovery of this single aspect of the “plain meaning” of the sentence requires an understanding of how governmental organizations work, how activists pursue their goals, likely public reactions to various contingent behaviors, and the like, along with application of all that knowledge through plausible inference. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has by my (computer-aided) count some 479 occurrences of pronouns in nominative, accusative, or possessive. Each one of these requires the identification of its antecedent, with all the reasoning that implies, to get its “plain meaning”.

Examining the actual textual subject of controversy in the PPACA demonstrates the same issue. The phrase in question is “established by the state”. The American Heritage Dictionary provides six senses and nine subsenses for the transitive verb ‘establish’, of which (by my lights) sense 1a is appropriate for interpreting the PPACA: “To cause (an institution, for example) to come into existence or begin operating.” An alternative reading might, however, be sense 4: “To introduce and put (a law, for example) into force.” The choice of which sense is appropriate requires some reasoning of course about the context in which it was used, the denotata of the subject and object of the verb for instance. If one concludes that sense 1a was intended, then the Supreme Court’s decision is presumably correct, since a state’s formal relegation to the federal government the role of running the exchange is an act of “causing to come into existence”, although perhaps not an act of “introducing and putting into force”. (Or further explication of the notions of “causing” or “introducing” might be necessary to decide the matter.) If the latter sense 4 were intended, then perhaps the Supreme Court was wrong in its recent decision. The important point is this: There is no possibility of deferring to the “plain meaning” on the issue; one must reason about the intentions of the authors to acquire even the literal meaning of the text. This process is exactly what Chief Justice Roberts undertakes in his opinion. Justice Scalia’s view, that plain meaning is somehow available without recourse to the use of knowledge and reasoning, is unfounded even in the simplest of cases.

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