McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli outside the California State Capitol

Definitions can play an important role in legislation. Defining words or phrases is done to provide the reader of the legislative text with clear guidance regarding how these words or phrases are to be understood and used in the forthcoming legislation.

Where there are multiple definitions, they are most often found near the beginning of legislative text. This is because it makes it easier for readers and instructs the reader how these words or phrases should be used when they’re reading the remainder of the statutory provisions. Now in some jurisdictions including the United Kingdom, definitions are actually placed at the end of legislation, and that’s pursuant to their own parliamentary practice. That is not the case in California.

Definitions can perform two different functions, labeling and stipulating. A labeling definition’s purpose is to allow the term to be used instead of a longer sentence. It has to set forth the definition repeatedly throughout the legislative text. A stipulating definition’s purpose is to provide a specific meaning for the defined term or phrase as it’s going to be used in the forthcoming legislation.

When drafting, the word phrase that is being defined is placed in quotation marks. That’s the California drafting style. In some different jurisdictions, they utilize boldfaced or italics instead for the word or phrase that’s going to be defined. Now generally across all jurisdictions, that first word is not begun with a capital letter and they don’t include a definite article the word the, or an indefinite article a or an in the definitions.

These are some of the types of definitions that we find in legislation.

  • Comprehensive definition – a complete statement of what the defined term actually means.
  • Restricting definition – the effort is to limit the use of a term to a specific context, particularly with that specific legislation.
  • Enlarging definition – extends the usual definition of a word.
  • Excluding definition – removes something from the usual meaning of the word or phrase.
  • Referential definition – utilizes a defined term that’s from a different area of the statutes. And this section specifically refers to that particular definition and where it is found elsewhere in the law.

You can find the full transcript of today’s podcast here.