Prototype-by-component analysis: A corpus-based, intensional approach to ordinary meaning in statutory interpretation

Jesse Egbert, Thomas R. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When faced with a word or phrase that is not defined in a statute, judges generally interpret the language of the law as it is likely to be understood by an ordinary user of the language. However, there is little agreement about what ordinary meaning is and how it can be determined. Proponents of corpus-based legal interpretation argue that corpora provide scientific rigor and increased validity and transparency, but there is currently no consensus on best practices for legal corpus linguistics. Our objective in this paper is to propose some refinements to the theory of ordinary meaning and corpus-based methods of analyzing it. We argue that the scope of legal language is established by conceptual (intensional) meaning, and not limited to attested referents. Yet, most current corpus-based approaches are purely referential (extensional). Therefore, we introduce a new methodology—prototype by component (PBC) analysis—in which we bring together aspects of the componential approach and prototype theory by assuming that categories are gradient entities that are characterized by gradient semantic components. We introduce the analytical steps in PBC analysis and apply them to Nix v. Hedden (1893) to determine whether tomato is a member of the category vegetable. We conclude that conceptual categories have a prototypical reality and a componential reality. As a result, attested referents in a corpus can provide insights into the conceptual meaning of terms and the degree to which concepts are members of categories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100078
JournalApplied Corpus Linguistics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2024


  • Extensional
  • Intensional
  • Legal interpretation
  • Lexical semantics
  • Ordinary meaning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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