Defining Words by Ordinary or Particular Meaning – It Depends
According to Abraham Lincoln, “a lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” I would add that the tools of the lawyer’s trade are words. In some cases, millions of dollars have been “won” and “lost” in legal battles over the meaning of a single word.
Therefore, it behooves a lawyer to use words precisely. However, most words are inherently imprecise, so attaining the requisite precision often requires a bit of artistry and finesse.
Consider, for example, how many words in the dictionary have multiple definitions. Some words can form more than one part of speech—noun, verb, adjective, etc.—and may even have more than one definition for each part of speech it can form. Such flexibility of a single word makes it possible for the following to be a grammatically correct sentence in the English language:
“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”
Add to this conundrum the fact that we define words with other words, and you can see how parties can find themselves in a dispute over what their own words mean, which brings us to the topic du jour: the legal interpretation of words.
It has long been a rule of common law that words used in contracts and statutes are given their ordinary meaning unless a particular meaning is ascribed by the contract or statute. Because, as discussed above, the ordinary meaning of words can often be indistinct, this rule caused a proliferation of contracts and statutes that set out a plethora of definitions for purposes of the contract or statute, often with the definition portion exceeding the substantive portion.
However, sometimes such definitions create more problems than they solve. For example, sometimes the word being defined is used in the definition itself, such as “for purposes of this contract, the word ‘tree’ means a tree having a diameter of more than four inches when measured five feet from the ground.” Also, sometimes a limitation is imposed on the provided definitions, such as “unless the context otherwise requires, the following words shall have the following meanings.”
Sometimes, even determining if a particular definition is provided can be difficult. For example, many codes adopted by the Texas Legislature have a set of definitions applicable to the entire code, then a set applicable to a specific title, then a set applicable to a specific chapter, then subchapter, then section, then subsection, and even subpart. The word “child,” for example, is defined differently for Title 2 and for Title 3 of the Family Code.
Also, even when no particular definition of a word is provided anywhere in a specific code, the word may be given a definition by to the Code Construction Act. Therefore, several words within the same statute may have definitions located in various places, and a lawyer must sometimes go on a sort of Easter Egg hunt in order to properly interpret the statute.
Some words may have acquired a technical meaning in certain contexts; and, when evidence of a technical meaning is present, such words are given that meaning unless a contrary intent is evident. Most often, technical meanings arise in statutes regulating specific industries or in contracts between merchants who share the same trade.
Finally, some words are given their ordinary meanings, but the ordinary meaning has changed since the word was selected by the scrivener. In these cases, courts will often entertain evidence of the ordinary meaning of the word at the time it was written. This situation most often occurs in statutes and real estate documents because these writings are among the few who maintain their legal effect long enough for their language to become antiquated.
Given the wordsmithery matters discussed above, it is no wonder some lawyers can spend so much time writing so little.
Byron L. Brown is an attorney with the Randle Law Office in Houston, Texas, where his practice areas include municipal economic development, municipal franchises and commercial lease litigation. He graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a B.A. in Criminal Justice, and earned his J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center.