April 22, 2004

Unreasonably in error?

It's not only baseball headlines and complex nominals that pose problems for parsers, human or artificial. Here's a high hard one from the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Meyer v. Nebraska:

The problem for our determination is whether the statute as construed and applied unreasonably infringes the liberty guaranteed to the plaintiff in error by the Fourteenth Amendment.

I'll freely admit to having swung and missed at this sentence, not once but twice.

At first, I understood it to be asserting that the Fourteenth Amendment was "in error" in guaranteeing liberty to the plaintiff. But that is a logically impossible view for the Supreme Court of the United States to hold. Then I considered that the sentence might be asking whether the statute was "in error" in infringing the plaintiff's liberty. This is a plausible meaning, but it's syntactically impossible, because it would involve tangled modification of a type that English doesn't allow:

... the statute unreasonably infringes the liberty guaranteed to the plaintiff in error by the 14th Amendment

(not to speak of the problems of having both a preverbal adverb "unreasonably" and a post-verbal adverbial "in error").

Then I remembered that "in error" is a legal term of art:

PLAINTIFF IN ERROR. A party who sues out a writ of error, and this whether in the court below he was plaintiff or defendant.

DEFENDANT IN ERROR. A party against whom a writ of error is sued out.

WRIT OF ERROR, practice. A writ issued out of a court of competent jurisdiction, directed to the judge of a court of record in which final judgment has been given, and commanding them, in some cases, themselves to examine the record; in others to send it to another court of appellate jurisdiction, therein named, to be examined in order that some alleged error in the proceeding may be corrected.

Mr. Meyer was of course the "plaintiff in error" in the case Meyer v. Nebraska, and once this occurred to me, the sentence became easy to understand. But I don't read enough Supreme Court opinions for this to have been my first, automatic construal.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 22, 2004 12:03 AM