Nielsen v. Preap / 5th grade grammar v. linguistics / Mass imprisonment v. human rights

Elizabeth Coppock


In the Supreme Court case Nielsen v. Preap, ignorance about syntax and semantics led to tragic consequences. The ACLU lawyer defending thousands of non-citizens from being rounded up and put into prison indefinitely by ICE let it come across that her argument rested on the false premise that adverbs can modify nouns. The textualists claimed victory, even though the humane reading of the text was the literal one in this case. The final decision rested crucially on this error on her part, and was buffered by a misunderstanding about how definite descriptions work. The dissent failed to articulate a convincing rebuttal, making spurious reference to passive voice. This case clearly shows how staggeringly consequential linguistic knowledge can be.


language and law; legal linguistics; semantics; temporal adverbials; passive participles; syntactic categories; definite descriptions

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