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Marco Basile, Ordinary Meaning and Plain Meaning, 110 Va. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2024).

Abstract: With textualism’s ascendancy, courts increasingly invoke the canon to assume “ordinary meaning” unless the context indicates otherwise and the rule to enforce “plain meaning” regardless of extratextual considerations. Yet the relationship between ordinary meaning and plain meaning can become confused in practice. Courts use the terms interchangeably, and they conflate them doctrinally. Ordinary meaning and plain meaning are distinct. Ordinary meaning is what the text would convey to a reasonable English user in the context of everyday communication. Plain meaning refers to a judgment that whatever the text conveys in context is clear from the text. Thus, a term’s ordinary meaning is also its plain meaning only when it is clear from how the term is used in the statute that its context is ordinary, as opposed to technical. Courts conflate the two, however, when they assume ordinary meaning under the ordinary meaning canon and then conclude that they are therefore bound to enforce that meaning under the plain meaning rule. As a result, they end interpretation prematurely, excluding extratextual aids that might well show that the ordinary meaning assumption should give way. This Article is the first to investigate the relationship between ordinary meaning and plain meaning. It clarifies their differences, identifies the ways in which they are conflated, and evaluates when they should converge. For textualists, greater clarity on this score illuminates when and how to bring ordinary meaning and plain meaning together in a principled manner. For methodological pluralists, understanding the gap between ordinary meaning and plain meaning opens opportunities to argue beyond the text in our increasingly textualist world.