Saturday, August 30, 2008


I'm back at Case Law School for one more year. It looks like it's going to be a rough semester: I'm taking three substantive classes, the health law clinic, a bar review course and a supervised research project. The latter will be a linguistic analysis of the Second Amendment. I'm also searching for a job after graduation and taking the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam in November. In between, I'm staying involved in the National Lawyers Guild, and working with a couple of friends to form a nonprofit to educate and advocate for greater accessibility to higher education.

I'm still hoping to post here, but it will probably not be too frequently.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A paper I wish I'd written

Shai Cohen brought this law review article to my attention. It's got so many things you want to see in a law article: linguistics, employment discrimination, eight-way ambiguities, upbraiding of judges for being insufficiently attentive to the nuances of language... well, it would have had upbraiding had I written it. Evidently the article's author, Jill C. Anderson, is less petty and more generous toward judges than I.

If I may brag, in my grad school days I wrote a paper in which I argued that the domain of events is, like the domain of entities is sometimes taken to be, divided along an individual/group axis as well as a singular/plural axis, with the upshot that sentences like Adin hit three boys five times is something like 13-ways ambiguous [aside to semanticists: I used a Landmanian analysis and took the theta-role functions to apply to group events, identifying individual events as the phases found in the literature on pluractionality]. I also managed to get an audience of linguists to see each of the thirteen or so distinct meanings. So: my contrived sentence is more ways ambiguous than Congress's carefully crafted one. Nyah!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Is Prop 8 language negative? Maybe not, but it's downward-entailing

The media is reporting on a California judge's dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an anti-gay group to change the wording in the summary of Proposition 8, a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Roger Shuy covers it in the Language Log, here.

According to news reports, the lawsuit alleged that the summary, which reads "Eliminates the Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry," "was argumentative, misleading and prejudicial," because eliminates is "a negative, active transitive word - grammar that had rarely, if ever, been used in a state ballot title." The plaintiffs preferred the old title, "Limit on Marriage," which was changed by Attorney General Jerry Brown after the Supreme Court held in May that same-sex couples could marry.

California Superior Court Judge Timothy M. Frawley's dismissed the challenge, saying that "[p]etitioner has failed to explain why the term 'eliminates' is inherently argumentative, while the term 'limit' is not."

One can argue about the inherent argumentativity, misleadingness or prejudiciality of the choices of language. But in at least one important sense, the anti-gay crowd is right that eliminate is more negative than limit. That's because eliminate, unlike limit, is downward-entailing in its complement, which, as shown in Bill Ladusaw's brilliant dissertation, correlates with the licensing of negative polarity items.

Here's an explanation for the uninitiated. It was noticed that certain words, like ever, are licensed in negative contexts, in the sense that they can exist in negative contexts but not the corresponding affirmative contexts. For example:

Nobody ever told me there'd be days like these
*Somebody ever told me there'd be days like these
Yochanan didn't ever tell me there'd be days like these
*Yochanan ever told me there'd be days like these
(Following convention, the asterisk indicates ungrammaticality.)

This led words like ever to become known as "negative polarity items" or NPIs for short. But many other words license NPIs without being logical negators.

Yeshaayahu denied that he ever smoked pot.
*Yeshaayahu affirmed that he ever smoked pot.

Few people ever walked on the moon.
*Many people ever walked on the moon.

Shmuel supported gay marriage before he ever found out his son was gay.
*Shmuel supported gay marriage after he ever found out his son was gay.

Everyone who's ever lived in California knows it's a crazy place.
*Someone who's ever lived in California knows it's a crazy place.

Some of these licensing words seem negative and can be rephrased using negatives, or else broken down into component parts that include negatives. Deny can be recast as say that not, and few can be restated as not many. But this is not true of all NPI licensers. Before is not the same as not after (because neither covers contemporaneous events) and every doesn't mean not some. Moreover, in neither of these pairs is one member of the pair more intuitively negative than the other.

What Ladusaw showed was that the concept of downward entailingness was a better predictor of the ability to license NPIs than the concept of negativity. A context is downward-entailing if and only if in that context, replacing a set with its proper subset preserves the truth of the sentence. For example:

Yisroel didn't eat fruit -->
Yisroel didn't eat bananas

Bananas is a proper subset of fruit. These sentences exemplify the fact that the scope of negation is a downward-entailing context. If the first sentence is true, the second one is necessarily true as well. The following sentences show that this property is shared by deny, few, before and the first argument of every.

Dafna denied eating fruit -->
Dafna denied eating bananas
(on one reading of the sentence)

Few people ate fruit -->
Few people ate bananas

Ofer says a bracha before eating fruit -->
Ofer says a bracha before eating bananas

Everyone who eats fruit is gay -->
Everyone who eats bananas is gay

These entailments do not hold of the counterparts of these words.

John ate fruit --/-->
John ate bananas

Dafna affirmed eating fruit --/-->
Dafna affirmed eating bananas
(on any reading of the sentence)

Many people ate fruit --/-->
Many people ate bananas

Ofer says a bracha after eating fruit --/-->
Ofer says a bracha after eating bananas

Someone who eats fruit is gay --/-->
Someone who eats bananas is gay

Now, back to the proposition. Eliminate is a downward-entailing word, and licenses ever.

Ryvka eliminated fruit from her diet so as not to appear to be homosexual -->
Ryvka eliminated bananas from her diet so as not to appear to be homosexual

Ryvka eliminated the situations in which she ever had to feel guilty.

Limited is not downward entailing, and doesn't license ever.

Ora limited the fruit in her diet so as to appear less homosexual --/-->
Ora limited the bananas in her diet so as to appear less homosexual

*Ora limited the situations in which she ever had to feel guilty.

These judgments are somewhat subtle, but I think they're correct; or if not correct, at least onto something.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Solum on defining "strict construction" and "judicial activism"

Prof. Solum's Legal Theory Lexicon here attempts to debunk, rather than define, the terms "strict construction" and "judicial activism", which he does by showing that straightforward attempts to define the terms fail for one reason or another.

He concludes that "'strict construction' and 'judicial activism' are simply not very useful as theory terms for academic constitutional lawyers." He fails, however, to explain why their use is so widespread. The obvious answer seems to be that they are useful terms of propaganda. It's much easier to rail against judicial activists and offer strict constructionist judges as an alternative if you don't have to state your objections or proposed alternatives with any clarity or specificity.