« Tyler Lindley: The Writ-of-Erasure Fallacy, Remedial Limits, and the Balance of Powers
Michael Ramsey
| Main | Stephen Halbrook on the Second Amendment after Bruen [Updated]
Michael Ramsey »


Larry Solum on Speaker's Meaning and Sentence Meaning
Michael Ramsey

At Legal Theory Blog, Larry Solum has an updated entry in his Legal Theory Lexicon for Speaker's Meaning and Sentence Meaning.  From the introduction:

[W]e can ask the question, "How do we figure out the meaning of a legal text?" In some cases, we can tell what the statute [ed.: or a constitution or other legal text] unambiguously means without asking the "how" question.  But other cases are more difficult.  When there is an argument about what a statute means, it may be helpful to turn to theoretical linguistics and the philosophy of language for a theory of communication.

One such theory was developed by the philosopher Paul Grice.  A key component of Grice's theory is the distinction between "speaker's meaning" and "sentence meaning."  Although most lawyers have never heard of Grice, every lawyer has an intuitive grasp of the difference between literal meaning (the bare meaning of the words as combined by syntax and punctuation) and the meaning that a speaker or author intended to convey in context.  This entry in the  Lexicon  provides a basic introduction to Grice's ideas.

And on the basic distinction:

The meaning that a speaker or author intended to convey to a listener or reader is what Grice calls "speaker's meaning."  And Grice developed a very precise and illuminating theory.  Grice uses the word "utterance" to refer to oral communications, and I will use that word as well.  For Grice the speaker's meaning of an utterance is the meaning that the speaker intended to convey to the listener via the listener's grasp of the speaker's communicative intentions.

Wow!  That sounds complicated!  Let's unpack Grice's formulation step by step.  We can start with an example.  It is a Tuesday and the following exchange takes place:

Ben says to Alice: "Pizza day!"

Alice says, "Great!  See you there."

Suppose that in context, when Ben says "Pizza day!" he means to say: "Today is the day that we usually have Pizza at Lampo's at noon, and I don't have a conflict."  But he doesn't have to spell it out, because Alice knows that every Tuesday, Ben and Alice have Pizza at Lampo's every Tuesday at noon unless Ben has a meeting.  When Ben says "Pizza day," Alice relies on her background knowledge and grasps that by saying "Pizza day!" Ben is conveying that he plans to meet her for Pizza.  By replying "Great!  See you there", Alice conveys that she is pleased and that she will be at Lampo's at noon today.

Notice that the content communicated by Ben and Alice is much richer in content than the literal meaning of their utterances.  This brings us to the idea of "sentence meaning."


Grice contrasted the speaker's meaning of a particular utterance on a particular occasion with sentence meaning.  The sentence meaning of an utterance is simply the literal meaning of the words, phrases, and sentences.  The literal meaning of "Pizza day" is very sparse.  Pizza is a food consisting of a crust and toppings such tomato sauce and cheese.  Day is a unit of time.  The phrase "pizza day" could mean any number of things.  It might be a day upon which there are pizzas--pizza day at the cafeteria.  Or it might be a day when a particular person, Vibiana, ate a slice of pizza.  Or it could be the day when the refrigerated truck delivers frozen pizzas to the market.  The expression "pizza day" is incomplete when it is considered out of context.  It has meaning, but that meaning is sparse.

And on implications for textualism:

The distinction between speaker's meaning and sentence meaning allows us clarify these theories.  For example, textualism is sometimes criticized on the grounds that textualists are literalists who ignore context; in other words, the critics assume that textualists aim to recover the sentence meaning of the statutory text.  Textualists themselves deny this.  They argue that they are concerned with the meaning of the statutory text but only for the purpose of clarifying the meaning that the statute conveyed.  In other words, they are aiming to recover something that is more like speaker's meaning than it is like sentence meaning.