Another Linguistics Issue at the Supreme Court

Thu Jan 20 17:11:30 UTC 2011

        Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case
turning on whether a corporation has "personal privacy."  FCC v. AT&T,
No. 09-1279.  The Freedom of Information Act has an exemption for
personal privacy, and a "person" is defined to include a corporation.
The Justices seemed unswayed by the corporation's arguments:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Counsel, your central argument is that because
"person" is defined to include corporation, "personal" in the same
statute must include corporate.
I tried to sit down and come up with other examples where the adjective
was very different from the root noun. It turns out it is not hard at
all. You have craft and crafty. Totally different. Crafty doesn't have
much to do with craft. Squirrel, squirrely. Right? I mean, pastor -- you
have a pastor and pastoral. Same root, totally different.
So I don't understand -- I don't think there's much to the argument that
because "person" means one thing, "personal" has to be the same

MR. KLINEBERG: Mr. Chief Justice, let me try to explain precisely what
our proposed rule of construction is, because I think there's been some
confusion and I -- and I think the government has -- has not properly
characterized it, and certainly in their reply brief.
We do not agree, we do not sign on to, the term "grammatical
imperative," because our concern with that phrase is that it might
suggest that the rule is to be applied regardless of the consequences,
and that is Our position is that where the adjective means "of or
relating to a term that Congress has expressly defined," that definition
should be applied, so long as it makes sense to do so in light of the
text and structure of the statute as a whole.
So in this case, Your Honor, "personal" does -- is defined -- when you
open up the dictionary, the very first definition is "of or relating to
a particular person." "Person" is, then, defined by Congress as -- to
include not only individuals, but -but corporations and other

Transcript at 35 - 36.  Roberts is wrong about "pastoral," which does
mean "of or relating to a pastor" (although it also has other meanings),
but I think the thrust of his argument and the application of it to this
case are correct.  If anyone is interested in this in a more serious
way, case documents, including the briefs and the transcript, are at

John Baker

The American Dialect Society -

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