Fighting over Words: Language and Civil Law Cases

Fighting over Words: Language and Civil Law Cases

Fighting over Words: Language and Civil Law Cases

Fighting over Words: Language and Civil Law Cases


Most people fight over something or other and language is usually at the very center of the conflict. Often the way we use language is the cause of the battle. There are many areas in which fighting about language can be observed but civil law cases offer the most fertile examples of this warfare over words. What did the contract actually say? Was there deception in the advertising? Was the warning label clear and effective? Did the company evidence race or age discrimination against employees or customers? Was one company's name too similar to that of another company? Did the corporation plagiarize the work of another? Did it fraudulently represent what its work? This book is about the ways linguistic analysis describes, exposes, and aids disputes in 18 civil cases where language framed the battleground. Roger Shuy, a well-known forensic linguist and consultant, shows how the skills of linguistic analysis can help resolve disputed meanings, while also showing how civil cases can prove to be fertile ground for linguistic scholarship. He does this by collecting and analyzing cases involving contracts, trademark disputes, advertisements, product liability, copyright infringement, discrimination, trademark disputes, and fraud controversies. In each case he employs all the tools of formal linguistics to show how it can be as helpful as other physical sciences in resolving legal disagreements. The work will be of interest primarily to linguists -- sociolinguists, forensic linguists, and scholars and students of law and society -- as well as lawyers and law students.


Commerce is conducted largely through language. This is so obvious that those who use language for business transactions seldom think about it; most people become so accustomed to using language that it’s practically invisible to them. Yet language is our major tool for dealing with most things in life. We are taught with it; we fall in love with it; we buy and sell with it; we even do mathematics with it. There is no area of human life that does not depend heavily on language. The world of commerce is no exception.


It is useful to think of three levels of language consciousness. The first level parallels other life tasks that become automatic, such as riding a bicycle or walking up the stairs. These seldom rise to our level of consciousness at all. In fact, if we were to think about these tasks as we do them, we would run a serious risk of having an accident. The more technology makes tasks easier to do, the more automatic and unconscious they can become, which is why we are now allegedly able to drive a car while at the same time drinking our coffee, listening to the radio or CD, or talking on our cell phones. In the same way, we usually don’t think about our native language as we converse in it. For most adults conversation is relatively automatic and unconscious. Otherwise our talk could be slowed down to a crawl.

The second level of language consciousness is exemplified by those who write or speak publicly, such as poets, politicians, novelists, clerics, statesmen, or journalists. To an extent, language is also used more consciously in the world of business, where it is often necessary for people to be more aware and careful about how they phrase their ideas. Among other things, they are more conscious . . .

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