ENG4169 – English legal language: Interpretation and meaning

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Course content

This course explores ways that theoretical tools from linguistics can be applied to deepen understanding of legal interpretation, and, conversely, ways in which legal texts provide challenging problems and data for theories of language and its use. We focus on legal texts from common law (Anglo-American) jurisdictions.

Key questions for this course include:

  • How do legal texts and their interpretations differ from other kinds of language use?
  • What is the illocutionary force of statutes? Do they create new legal facts or are they (also) orders to be followed?
  • What determines the meaning of a legal text? The original meanings of the words used, their meanings now, intentions of the legislature, or something else?
  • How do judges and other consumers of legal texts understand and interpret them? What are the roles played by linguistic decoding, inference, and more creative legal decision-making?

Learning outcome

After completing this course you will

  • be familiar with the application of linguistic theories to the analysis of legal texts, particularly statutes
  • be familiar with legal canons of interpretation such as noscitur a sociis
  • have knowledge of theoretical accounts of implicature, pragmatic enrichment, and speech acts
  • have insight into the contested notion of the meaning of a legal text, and some of the competing accounts, including textualism and intentionalism
  • have advanced skills in scholarly writing that applies one or more linguistic theories to legal texts


Students who are admitted to study programmes at UiO must each semester register which courses and exams they wish to sign up for in Studentweb.

If you are not already enrolled as a student at UiO, please see our information about admission requirements and procedures.

Students admitted to other master’s programmes may, upon application, be admitted to the course if this is cleared with their own programme.


Recommended previous knowledge

The course assumes a good proficiency in written and oral English.

This course is aimed those with interest in both linguistic theory and the study of law, and knowledge of at least one of them.


The course is taught for 11 weeks of the semester, with a two hour seminar per week: 22 hours in all.

Students are expected to attend all teaching and to participate actively in all seminars.

Obligatory activities:

  • Students are required to hand in one paper of an acceptable standard by a set deadline during the semester to be allowed to submit the term paper.

Read more about rules concerning valid excuses and how to apply for approved absences or postponements.


The assessment of the course is based on a term paper of approximately ten standard pages (a standard page consists of 2,300 characters). This does not include references and bibliography. In the evaluation, both content and language are taken into account.

Assessment guidelines.

Submit assignments in Inspera

You submit your assignment in the digital examination system Inspera. Read about how to submit assignments in Inspera.

Use of sources and citation

You should familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to the use of sources and citations. If you violate the rules, you may be suspected of cheating/attempted cheating.

Language of examination

The examination text is given in English, and you submit your response in English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Resit an examination

Withdrawal from an examination

It is possible to take the exam up to 3 times. If you withdraw from the exam after the deadline or during the exam, this will be counted as an examination attempt.

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.


The course is subject to continuous evaluation. At regular intervals we also ask students to participate in a more comprehensive evaluation.

Facts about this course






Every autumn


Every autumn

Teaching language