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Neal Goldfarb on Artis v. DC (part 2)
Michael Ramsey

At LawNLinguistics, Neal Goldfarb: Artis v. District of Columbia, part 2: Units of meaning and dictionary definitions.  An interesting and complex post that's difficult to summarize, but here's a bit of it:

This is my second post about Artis; the first one discussed Justice Gorsuch’s choice of what dictionaries to cite in his dissenting opinion. ...

Artis involves the federal supplemental-jurisdiction statute (about which, read my previous post). That statute provides that the limitations period for state-law claims as to which supplemental jurisdiction is invoked “shall be tolled while the claim is pending and for a period of 30 days after it is dismissed unless State law provides for a longer tolling period.” At issue before the Supreme Court was what the statute means in saying that the limitations period is “tolled.” ...

THE MAJORITY OPINION BEGINS by saying that when toll is used “in the context of  a time prescription,” it “ordinarily…means that the limitations period is suspended (stops running) while the claim is sub judice elsewhere, then starts running again when the tolling period ends, picking up where it left off.” The authority cited to support that statement is Black’s Law Dictionary, which the opinion describes as saying that “‘toll,’ when paired with the grammatical object “statute of limitations,” means “to suspend or stop temporarily” This definition, the opinion says, “captures the rule generally applied in federal courts,” The opinion also points to several statutes that use the verb toll in this way, and notes that in contrast, neither the defendant nor the dissent identified any federal statute in which toll was used differently.

The dissent’s textual argument, on the other hand, relies mainly on the dictionary definitions [of toll]  that are the subject of my previous post: “to take away, bar, defeat, or annul” (OED) and “to take away; to vacate; to annul” (Webster’s Second (W2)). In this respect, the dissent tracked the defendant’s argument, which had cited the OED’s definition and similar definitions from other dictionaries, including Webster’s Third (W3).

After identifying the divergent views, the post favors the former:

 ... Under the traditional approach to lexicography, which is based on the principle of com­po­sition­ality, the relevant unit of meaning is the word. Each word in a sentence is assumed to have a meaning of its own, and that the meaning of the sentence is seen as being determined by the meanings of the individual words and how they are grammatically combined. And this almost certainly represents the understanding of virtually all lawyers and judges about how language works. But while it is in many respects a useful way of thinking about language, it glosses over a major complication.

Many words, including most of those that are used the most frequently, have multiple possible meanings, and when such a word is used in a sentence, its meaning in that context depends largely on what the rest of the sentence says. So there is a chicken-and-egg problem: how can in­dividual words be regarded as basic units of meaning when the meaning of a word in a particular context is itself affected by the context?

The answer that is suggested by the work in corpus lexicography is that rather than assuming that the relevant unit of meaning is the word, the focus should be on phrases and other multiword expressions. Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of what such an approach would entail is provided by transitive verbs—precisely the category that is relevant in Artis. When we start looking at phrases consisting of a transitive verb and its direct object, we can see that the verb’s meaning in context varies depending on which noun serves as its direct object ...