The Meaning of The

Why can’t lawyers agree on the meanings of basic words?

John Edwards.
Former Sen. John Edwards and daughter Cate Edwards Upham leave the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Greensboro, N.C. on April 12.

Photograph by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images.

John Edwards’ legal team, which began its defense of the former senator today, intends to argue that Edwards did not violate campaign finance laws by using donations to hide his affair with Rielle Hunter. The law proscribes “any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money … for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office.” Edwards’ lawyers argue that the word the, as in “the purpose of influencing any election,” suggests the sole purpose. That’s a key distinction, since prosecutors argue that the, in this case, means a—and that the whole phrase suggests at least one among several purposes. Why can’t lawyers agree on the definitions of basic words like the?

Because language is often ambiguous, and the people who write laws sometimes fail to define their terms. In regular speech, the definite article (the) can sometimes refer to something unique—for instance, “I have a cat. The cat is sleeping.” Other times, it can refer to something that’s not unique: If I say, “My cat is lying on the arm of my chair,” I’m not implying that the chair has only one arm. Whether the refers to something unique depends on the context in which it’s used and can be open to interpretation. (The can also refer to a broad category of things, as in “The cat is a kind of mammal,” but neither side of the Edwards case is arguing for this meaning of the.) 

It’s up to a judge to determine which definition of a word is more likely to apply in a given statute. Many lawyers and judges try to apply what’s known as the “ordinary-usage canon”—that is, what a reasonable native speaker of English would assume a word, phrase, or idiom to mean. Sometimes judges’ rulings don’t exactly adhere to ordinary-usage canon—for instance, in 1993, the Supreme Court ruled that the phrase “using a gun” could mean not only using a gun as a weapon (as one might commonly use that phrase to mean) but also giving someone a gun in exchange for something else (in this case, drugs). More recently, in Caraco Pharmaceutical Laboratories v. Novo Nordisk, the Supreme Court ruled that the phrase not an, as in “not … an approved method of using the drug,” means “not a particular” method, rather than “not any” method.

Other seemingly simple words that are often contested in the courts include any, and, or, and shall.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bethany Dumas of the University of Tennessee; Bryan A. Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and co-author of the forthcoming Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Text; Jack Hawkins of the University of California, Davis; Craig Hoffman of Georgetown University; Sanford Schane of the University of California, San Diego; and Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Video Explainer: Why Do Parrots Parrot, and Do They Know What They’re Saying?

This video was produced from an original Explainer by Will Oremus.

Want more questions answered? You can now watch video Explainers at Slate’s News Channel on YouTube.