Canon of Statutory Construction – Noscitur a Sociis

For purposes of statutory construction, the courts and bill drafters use a series of “canons” to guide them. These include textual canons (intrinsic aids), linguistic presumptions and grammatical conventions, substantive canons, and extrinsic aids. It is impossible to list them all, but there are some common canons, and those are most useful for legislative drafting.

We start with the presumption that the Legislature drafts its bills carefully and intentionally. Because of this presumption, the usual approach of the judicial branch is to narrow statutes rather than expand them, and the courts are less activist in their interpretation.

Noscitur a Sociis guides us to interpret words or phrases in light of the other words around it in the statute. In other words, the courts should interpret an ambiguous word or phrase by taking into account the word’s and phrase’s use in its textual context. Some commentators have opined that words are defined by the company they keep. 

The following is an example: Each classroom shall be provided paper, binder paper, printer paper, cardstock, and colored paper. In this case, what is the first “paper” referring to? Under this canon, the first “paper” would be something related to binder paper, printer paper, cardstock, and colored paper, perhaps writing paper, but likely would not be receipt paper, which would have little use in the classroom and would stand out given the context provided by the other words in the sentence.

So, this canon of statutory construction helps determine the meaning of an unclear or ambiguous word (as in a statute) should be determined by considering the words with which it is associated in the context. Noscitur a sociis is used for interpreting questionable words in a statute.

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