5 Part D Interpreting rules
We have seen some of the difficulties that Mrs Biggs has faced when formulating a sufficiently general and sufficiently specific rule to deal with the conduct of the visitors to her garden. In Part D we take things a step further by looking at some of the difficulties which may arise when it comes to interpreting rules such as the one developed (with your help) by Mrs Biggs. In particular, we will be exploring the way in which our understanding of the language used in rules affects our interpretation of them – the way in which indeterminacy (the capacity of words and phrases to carry multiple meanings) creates difficulties – the problems of adopting a literal approach to rule interpretation, and the kinds of interpretive strategies we can adopt so as to avoid absurd interpretations and give effect to the intentions of the rule-maker.
Anybody who wants to apply a rule must first interpret it. Just as the job of an interpreter is to translate one language into another, so the job of those applying rules is to determine the meaning of a rule in order to see whether it applies to a given situation, and, if so, in what way and to what extent.
One of the problems those applying rules face when confronted with a written rule is that the emphasis intended by the rule-maker is not always clear. This is because rules are expressed in language, and language has an indeterminate quality to it. We all know what we mean by the word ‘cat’ or ‘kettle’ or ‘tree’, but things are not always so simple. An example of what I mean would be the following comment by a fictional visitor to Mrs Biggs's garden:
The meaning of this apparently simple sentence depends on the emphasis we give each word. Suppose the visitor said it like this:
This emphasis suggests that the visitor has been comparing one plant with another, and has decided that the plant she is indicating is a particularly nice specimen.
But the visitor could instead say the sentence like this:
This emphasis suggests that the visitor has been comparing the plant with things other than plants.
Or she could say it like this:
This suggests that although the visitor originally thought differently, she has now decided that the plant is quite nice after all.
Or she could put the emphasis here:
This suggests that the visitor thinks the plant is quite, but not very, nice.
The meaning of the sentence ‘That plant is quite nice’ therefore depends entirely on the emphasis placed on the individual words. While there is rarely a problem when somebody is speaking a sentence out loud, or where the emphasis is made clear on the page (as it has been here), it can be a problem when the sentence, or rule, is written down without any obvious emphasis.
In order to deal with these, and other, difficulties of rule interpretation, it is therefore necessary to adopt what may be called interpretive strategies.