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Judges and the law
Judges and the law

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2.2 Use of language

Use of language is extremely important in law. As a law student it is important that you use language in an accurate way. The rest of Part A of this course will therefore consider the importance of language in law.

Box 1 Use of language

By now you will have had a few opportunities to look up the meaning of words you were not sure about. Using language in an accurate way is often very important. Suppose I tell you that ‘recently an organisation produced a report that said most new houses built this century are of a bad quality’.

You might well think then that what was wrong with the houses included things like defective woodwork, broken tiles, windows that do not shut properly, and sloping floors. If it turned out that what the report was really identifying as bad were features like lack of front gardens (as double driveways were used instead), and lack of visible similarity with older properties in the same district, then you might well say: ‘That's not bad quality. If anything, it is bad design. It is the design of the houses that the report seems to be attacking, not the quality of the workmanship.’ Such a misunderstanding stems from the fact that, initially, I said to you that the report claimed houses were of ‘bad quality’.

This sort of misunderstanding that comes from using language in a careless way happens all the time. In any area where rules operate, it is essential for people to be careful about the way they use language.

I should now like you to attempt the first four activities, in which you are asked to use dictionaries. Where we introduce a specialist word or phrase, I will give you a definition of it. However, you might not be sure of the meaning of some of the other words in this course. (The same applies for asociated law courses.)

If you go into a large bookshop and head for the section called something like ‘Dictionaries and Reference’, you will discover a wide range of dictionaries. Some are general and some are specialist reference dictionaries, such as a dictionary of science.

You may also discover that there are a wide variety of dictionaries available online.

Activity 1 Using a dictionary

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Why do you use a dictionary? Try to think of at least four occasions when you have referred to one.


My answers are probably quite similar to yours:

  1. to find the meaning of an unfamiliar word

  2. to check the meaning of a familiar word and related words

  3. to check the spelling of a word

  4. to see how to pronounce a word

  5. to see what synonyms (different words with very similar meanings) are available; sometimes a thesaurus is used for this purpose

  6. to look up a specialist word in a specialist dictionary for a much fuller description (e.g. photosynthesis).

Activity 2 Which dictionary?

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Read the following passage and write down your own definitions of the three words in bold:

The earliest dictionaries were word lists inscribed on clay tablets organised like a thesaurus, in the second millennium BCE. Even after the invention of the alphabet later in the same millennium, many centuries passed before alphabetic ordering became a common tool for organising information. The need for a dictionary in which difficult English words were explained by easier English words took shape in the late sixteenth century and, by the eighteenth century, the dictionary was competing with spelling books as a quick ‘look-up’ source. Monolingual dictionaries, like the Oxford English Dictionary, list and define the words of one language. Bilingual dictionaries offer the equivalent of language A in language B. Pronouncing dictionaries arrived later in the eighteenth century, and speciality dictionaries for technical subjects or controversial usage such as slang in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; an example of the latter is Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Once you have written down your definitions, look up the three words in a general dictionary and compare your definitions with those from the dictionary.


Often the general dictionary will tell you whether the word is a verb, or a noun, or some other part of speech. Some will also give you an example of the word used in a phrase or sentence.