Ambiguity of Law

Nicholas Liang


Ambiguity (n):

            Dictionary Definition (Oxford): 

                        “The quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.” 

            Legal Definition (USLegal):

“Vagueness or uncertainty of meaning, the possibility of interpreting an expression in two or more distinct ways.”

In the context of statutory interpretation:

“Ambiguity is used to indicate the doubt a judge must entertain before s/he can search for or apply a second meaning.”

                        Latent/Extrinsic Ambiguity:

“An ambiguity that does not readily appear in the language of the document, but arises from collateral matter when the document’s terms are applied or executed.”

                        Patent Ambiguity:

“An ambiguity that clearly appears on the face of a document, arising from the language itself.”


                        “Doubt; uncertainty; vagueness.”

Law (n):

            Dictionary Definition (Oxford):

“The system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties.”


            “Old English lagu, from Old Norse lag ‘something laid down or fixed’, of Germanic origin and related to lay.”

            Legal Definition (USLegal):

“Any system of regulations to govern the conduct of the people of a community, society or nation, in response to the need for regularity, consistency and justice based upon collective human experience.”

When broken down, we can easily define these terms individually, but when ambiguity is offered in a legal context, what is the impact? For something as seemingly important as law, a system that supposedly “[regulates] the actions of its members” and offers a means of enforcement of penalties, how can we allow ambiguity? It is through these questions in which we can better understand how varied interpretations of the law can lead to a host of consequences – whether that may be lasting judicial precedence, the criminal justice system as a whole, or the way legislation is crafted and enforced in our country.


            Within the topic of law, the ambiguity that is often linked with legislation and judicial decision is commonly debated. As David Mellinkoff states in the first sentence of his piece, The Language of the Law, “the law is a profession of words.” As also noted as a main theme in the Law, Societies, and Justice (LSJ) course by Professor Steve Herbert, the law is codified through words, and words are inherently ambiguous. The word “ambiguity” itself has multiple interpretations.In one sense, called general meaning, describes how language is used by speakers or writers and understood by listeners or readers. This interpretation is much more related to the work of law. In another meaning, the restricted meaning is “concerned with certain lexical and grammatical properties that are part of the very fabric of language, irrespective of anyone’s usage or understanding” (Schane, 1).This leads us to the understanding that not only is the term “ambiguity” ambiguous, but that our English language is full of ambiguity, and the multitude ff interpretations and meanings will ultimately have an effect on our laws.

            In order to truly understand the manifestation of the ambiguity often found in law, the language of our laws must be examined. English is used throughout our legal codes and systems, however as stated before, the English language is inherently ambiguous.When the founding fathers began to lay structure to the laws we have today, an official federal language was never determined (Ray, 2). However, English is employed when creating the framework of our American government, for documents such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and so forth.Fast forward to the present, and English continues to be the dominant and primary language in which all law, education, medicine, and every facet of life is presented as to ordinary Americans. One could argue that English has undoubtedly become the unofficial official language of the US. As stated before, as law is made of words, we can find that the law is inherently ambiguous. Now, without getting into the origin of the American English language too extensively,it draws influences from a number of cultures such as Spanish, French, Latin, and many more. A proficient understanding of legal language is one of the basic requirements to practice and argue law, yet so many important legal terms, such as habeas corpus and prima facie, are not words or phrases traditionally found in the English language. This legalese has become accepted into the language of law, and as Mellinkoff puts it, “though English is the official language [of the United States], the language of the law is not officially English” (Mellinkoff, 10).

            In a legal sense, ambiguity is uniformly impactful. In almost every ambiguous case in legal history, the ambiguity clearly consisted of one player: a differing of interpretation.One of the primary ways this differing of interpretation can have the strongest impact is in the U.S. judicial courts.From lower-level district courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the interpretation of the law is the chief decider in many rulings. In fact, cases that are brought to the Supreme Court are accepted due to numerous appeals to lower judicial rulings. Following this thread of reasoning, the structure in which our courts are set up encourage the use of judicial discretion and varied interpretation, with steps constructed to aid the course of ambiguous rulings. In the later “Examples” section of this glossary term, a specific case will be examined to portray the many ways ambiguity manifests itself in American law.

Examples & Effects

Many may not assume that simple ambiguous words could impact the way our justice system conducts itself in a courtroom and a judicial ruling. However, in many cases, the arrival of ambiguity stems from debate over these seemingly simple terms and phrases.These cases primarily fall under contract law, where certain terms are contested as ambiguous in meaning. In the following case, ambiguous legal language will adapt to the interpretations and understandings of the court.

In Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. International Sales Corp., a seemingly simple word is contested in meaning; chicken. The buyer, plaintiff in this case, orders 2 frozen chickens, one that is 1½ – 2lbs and another that is 2 1/3 – 3lbs. However, issue arises when the buyer discovers that the larger ordered chicken was an older “stewing chicken”, a distinction from typical chickens that can be broiled or fried. Ultimately, the issue boils down to one question: “What is chicken?” The plaintiff and defendant had differing interpretations. The plaintiff believed that chicken meant “a young chicken, suitable for broiling and frying”. To the defendant, a chicken would be “any bird of the genus that meets contract specifications on weight and quality, including what [is called] ‘stewing chicken’” (Schane, 2). The judge ultimately agreed that the term ‘chicken’ alone was ambiguous, however ultimately agreed with the defendant. In the court’s reasoning, it was stated that the plaintiff “has the burden of showing that ‘chicken’ was used in the narrower rather than in the broader sense, and this it has not sustained” (190 F.Supp.116 (S.D.N.Y. 1960)). Put simply, the plaintiff failed to prove that, when ordering the chicken, they used the term ‘chicken’ to mean a chicken that could be used to broil or fry. For this reason, the judge decided with the defendant and dismissed the case.

            With the facts of the case established, let’s analyze what this means for future uses of the term “chicken”. With the judge’s decision in mind, it must be recognized that in future uses of “chicken” in contracts, it would be wise to clearly define what type of chicken would be used. Without such clear definition, the courts would obviously favor whoever simply fulfilled the task of providing any chicken that met specified requirements. In this case, the language that must be provided in contract has propelled, and the way this language must be articulated was decided by the courts. Terms that would not have ordinarily seemed to have much contestation, such as “chicken”, become a focus of deliberation and differing interpretation, ultimately proving the prevalent ambiguity that riddles our language, and in turn, our laws.


            There isn’t much in our time in American history where the ambiguity of law has surfaced in a similar way. The reason for this lies primarily in the fact that the structures, groundwork, and construction of our American society was one planted with codes entrenched with ambiguity. Therefore, legally speaking, our subsequent laws and policies are created with ambiguity, as our foundation is one that rests in ambiguity.The American Constitution itself, a document established to seemingly protect and define the rights of all American citizens, is riddled with ambiguity. The necessity of the Bill of Rights as a separate document goes to show the ambiguity that our founding fathers dealt with. Yet, even in the Bill of Rights, the many constitutional amendments are heavily debated in its interpretations.

            In another sense, outside the scope of legal language, the ambiguity of codified language surfaces in many religious texts.In specific, the Bible within the context of Christianity is seen as the overarching “laws” in which religious followers read, understand, and apply to their religious culture and society. In other words, the Bible, like many other religious texts, serve a similar role that the Constitution has for the United States of America. Like the Constitution, the Bible has seen a number of variations, which multiple versions released and circulated across the globe. The Constitution itself finds itself as a living and editable document, with 27 different amendments ratified by the people.Even so, the interpretations and the historical significance of certain excerpts of both the Constitution and the Bible have diminished and varied over the years. Some aspects of the Bible have been socially accepted, even by devout followers. Customs such as divorce, adultery, and even acts such as eating certain seafood, were stated in the Bible as a violation of Christian belief. So why do we continue to find religious violations occurring and accepted in our society?Certainly, the effect of ambiguity and the significance of proper historical context offers substantial impact and weight to the way our society interprets codified laws, in both a secular and religious sense.              

Possible Future

            The analysis and discussion of the ambiguity of law also begs the question of what we, as a society, should expect from the future of ambiguous legalese. Although the language American law is written in is English, there has never been a federal law passed deciding that English would become the official language of the U.S.However, many states have made that decision in their respective state legislatures, and there is currently a movement to pass a bill to do the same on a federal level (Citrin, Jack, et al, 2).The way in which ambiguity in law will progress through history is one that cannot be definitely determined, however it must be accepted that an ever-growing legal library has been collecting since the conception of American law, and that library will continue to fill as more decisions and laws are made. The interpretations and definitions of legal language will change, grow, and adapt to many administrations and lawmakers, and as citizens we can only hope that those interpretations will continue to serve the purpose of protecting Americans.

Connection to LSJ 

            With a general understanding regarding the ambiguity of law established, what information can be synthesized with the LSJ course? As stated previously, the understanding that law is ambiguous is one of the core themes to the course.With that in mind, all the concepts that we discuss and analyze must be viewed in this perspective. 

            In the context of social control, we examine two different forms in lecture: formal and informal. We learn that informal social control is often unclear and up to the interpretation of the individual society and/or culture. Through its personalization, varied consequences, and concept of self-policing, it would be easy to call this form of social control more ambiguous relative to formal social control.However, when we examine ambiguity in law, we find that ambiguity is a basic consequence of formal control. In formal social control, three terms must be met. A designated enforcement authority, codified rules, and clear punishments for violation of the code. Yet, as we can see in our current governmental structures, the latter two of those terms are often met with ambiguity in terms of interpretation.In practice, formal social control faces a similar problem that informal social control must confront: ambiguity.

            Another construct that is analyzed in the LSJ course is the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment reads as follows:

            The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

            In 54 words, the Fourth Amendment aims to establish and protect the rights of American citizens. But, in the attempt to do so, many of the words and phrases have allowed for a varied interpretation, potentially jeopardizing the protections and rights implied in the words. What constitutes a search or seizure? What defines the standard of “unreasonable”? And, in further analysis, who has the power to answer these questions? In recent history, judges and legislators have upheld the role of defining these terms as well as administering the implications of those precise definitions.But with this understanding determined, one crucial question arises – how effective can our laws be if our legal language is largely ambiguous?

Works Cited:

190 F.Supp.116 (S.D.N.Y. 1960) (Frigaliment Importing Co. v. B.N.S. International Sales)

Citrin, Jack, et al. “The ‘Official English’ Movement and the Symbolic Politics of Language in the United States.” Western Political Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, Sept. 1990, pp. 535–559, doi:10.1177/106591299004300307.

Mellinkoff, David. The Language of Law. Little, Brown & Co., Boston: 1963.

Ray, Saumyajit. “Politics over Official Language in the United States: Aspects of Constitutional Silence on the Status of English.” International Studies, vol. 44, no. 3, July 2007, pp. 235–252, doi:10.1177/002088170704400303.

Schane, Sanford. (2019). Ambiguity and Misunderstanding in the Law.

Schildkraut, Deborah J. “Official-English and the States: Influences on Declaring English the Official Language in the United States.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2, June 2001, pp. 445–457, doi:10.1177/106591290105400211.