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Beijing Law Review
2013. Vol.4, No.1, 28-36
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/blr) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/blr.2013.41004
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
What Is a Good Legislative Definition?
1Department of Law, Pontificia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
2Department of Pr i va t e Law, Universitat of Gi rona, Girona, Spain
Received October 9th, 2012; revised November 10th, 2012; accepted November 17th, 2012
When normative authorities (that is to say, “Legislators”) assume the task of assigning the meaning of
normative texts, they use, fundamentally, two techniques: these are called “interpretative laws” and “leg-
islative definitions”. In this study, relating to the research “problems of production and normative per-
formance”, we deal with the analysis of definitions in the legal field.
Keywords: Jurisprudence; Legislative Definition; Legislative Drafting
The Roman jurist Giavoleno Prisco (1st Century AD), in a
well-known maxim, established that “omnis definitio in iure
civili periculosa est” 1. In one sense somewhat ordinary, this
maxim has been repeatedly cited with the objective of con-
demning any and every foray into definition on the part of the
Despite this opposition, there are clear legislative examples
of dispositions which define. It seems, therefore, that all of this
requires a more detailed analy si s.
Thus, with this specific objective, in item 1 we shall begin
with an uncontroversial concept of definition so that afterwards
we may deal with the understanding of legislative definition in
particular (item 5). Then, we will look at its propositions (item
2), and the classification and function of legislative definitions
(item 3). In the successive items, base d on some necessary dis-
tinctions between “norms”, “normative dispositions”, and “net-
works of disposition” (item 4), we will relate the theme of leg-
islative definition to its styling. Moreover, we will deal with the
question of the difference between the “legislative” definitions
and the definitions resulting from “legal doctrine” (item 7) so
that, in the end, we may question if this must be defined by the
legislator (item 8). In the sequel, we concentrate our forces on
the analysis of the common pathologies in legal definitions
(item 9), in how to go about avoiding them (item 10).
What Is a Definition?
It is said that a “vocable” i s a word or term. A “statement” is
a sequence of signs inscribed by some physical means (sounds
and images), be it oral enunciation (speech) or written (vo-
cables); it is the product, the result of the enunciated act (Wolf-
ram, 2005). A statement can just as easily adhere to grammati-
cal rules as not adhere to them. Every complete statement that
adheres to grammatical rules makes up a “speech” (Tarello,
1974; Guastini, 1990). When it doesn’t adhere to grammatical
rules, it is said that a statement is “ungrammatical” (Petter,
The completeness of the statement is related to the presence
of the elements formed by an idea, such as subject, verb, and
predicate; and then there is correctness, that is, the respectabil-
ity of the grammatical rules in relation to the adequate compo-
sition of the elements of the statement: “completeness” and
“correctness” of the statement, in this way, are found to be
determined by the grammar of the language in question2.
“To define” consists of an attribution of meaning achieved
by a statement; attribution of meaning because to define is to
conceptualize with the objective of clarifying other concepts.
But “to define” can refer as much to the activity of defining as
to the result of the definition. So these concepts could be called
the “definition-activity” and the “definition-product”.
Definitions, all definitions, in order to be definitions, are
composed of a “clarifying” and a “clarified” concept, in such a
way that a definition may be depicted in the following manner:
“X is defined as Y”.
From this it is understandable why some authors don’t go
without saying: “By ‘law’ one must understand ‘this’ or ‘(...)’”.
“X” is the defined term or the definiendum (lat.: that which
shall be defined; the term that is introduced, the clarified concept)
and “Y” is the defined expression or definens (lat.: that which
serves to define; term whose use is known; the clarifying con-
cept). The “it is defined as” is the expression that appears to
establish the equivalence (Ullmann, 1962). One may say, “the
value of ‘Pi’ (definiendum) is defined as ‘3.1415926535(...)’
(definiens)”. It is understood, therefore, that the definiens isn’t
the “meaning” of the definiendum, but another “symbol” or
“group of symbols” that according to the definition possess the
same meaning as the definiendum.
Therefore, a definition, in basic terms, explains an unknown
or dubious meaning by using a better known and less dubious
The Definition and Its Purposes
It is evident that aptitude for communicating does not guar-
antee the understanding of what is said on the part of the re-
ceiver of the message. Because as much as in conversation (be
it established by words or signs) as in reading it is common for
us to be faced with vocabulary that is unknown or whose
2When a stat ement i s o rgan ized arou nd a ver b, t his is s aid to b e a “s enten ce”
So, in these statements: 1) “John!”, 2) “What a woman!”, and 3) “Noel’s son
is happy”, only statement 3) constitutes a sentence.
1“Every de fi nition in law (civil) is dangerous” (Digest 5 0 , 17, 202).
meaning cannot be well-understood within the context in which
it is transmitted.
To resolve this dilemma, the expedient of definition is used.
With this, it may be said that one of the main reasons for defin-
ing something is to expand the vocabulary of the person for
whom the definition is elaborated. But this isn’t the only pur-
pose of definitions.
Gen eral ly, de finiti ons a ssist in the elimination of ambiguities,
in th e e xpla na tion of something, i n the reduction of information,
to influence attitudes, or even to avoid emotional repercussions
(Copi & Cohen, 1994):
1) Eliminating ambiguities. When a single word or ex-
pression is used to indicate two objects or distinct phe-
nomena, it is said to have ambiguity. This is why every
time it is established that a word is ambiguous this signi-
fies that it can be understood in many different ways in
common or ordinary speech. An ambiguous word, there-
fore, can generate as much misleading reasoning, or rather,
false reasoning, as it can futile arguments which are
merely verbal. Delimiting the extension of the meanings
of the words constitutes a useful recourse in the elimina-
tion of such incidents;
2) Explaining something. The objective of defining a vo-
cable is not always to clarify ambiguities; it may be in-
tended to incorporate new knowledge. However, it
doesn’t only have to do with expanding vocabulary, but
with formulating an adequate characterization of the ob-
jects to which the term will refer. This is the case when
one defines “force”, “particle”, “suffrage” etc.;
3) Reducing information. Sometimes a definition is used
with the object of conserving mental energy by reducing
sentences. Mathematically this is what happens when ex-
ponential notation is used. This can be thought of in the
trouble of frequently writing the notation of 9 × 9 × 9 × 9
× 9 × 9 × 9 × 9 × 9 × 9 instead of 910;
4) Influencing attitudes. Besides expanding vocabulary,
eliminating ambiguities, explaining something or reduce-
ing information, definitions may have the aim of provoke-
ing emotional reactions in whoever hears the argument or
reads it. Here, the defined word constitutes a crucial ele-
ment for this. This is what occurs when one defines
“honor”, “weakness”, “heroism”, “cowardice”, “to look
after” in a court when defending someone from an accu-
sation of murder; or even when a reference is made to
“love”, “compassion”, “devotion” in a ruling concerning
the practice of euthanasia. In all of these situations the
objective is not to supply an “exact” or “literal” definition
in terms of determined practice, but to strategically lead
your listeners to establish bonds with respect to what is
5) Avoiding emotional repercussions. Sometimes the sub-
jective weight of the vocable creates a disturbance which
calls attention to itself and dislocates the focus of the
reader through reasons of emotive association. Although
sometimes it is desirable that a definition instigates sub-
jectivity in whoever hears or reads the argument, at other
times the exact opposite may be desired. For this reason,
terms such as “poverty”, “misery”, “wealth”, etc. in an
economic exposition may be substituted by letters repre-
senting them as variables in a calculation of government
spending. This, as a matter of fact, occurs with frequency
when characteristics of the interviewee are substituted by
references free of sentimental connotation. In these cases,
the definition must contain an explanation that explains
the symbology with the density necessary for its adequate
A Brief Classification o f De f i ni tions
The term “definition” in plural has been used without greater
explanation. There is a reason for this: the meanings of words
can be specified in many different ways. And it is exactly be-
cause of this that the act of defining can vary depending on the
objective or give the general idea that it is communicated start-
ing from a concept (Tarello, 1980; Barberis, 1998).
With the hope of gathering this diversity in an intelligible
catalog, theoreticians show several indicators that are under-
stood to be strong features of any definition, such as: 1) “ob-
ject” of the definition (the thing to which it refers); 2) “func-
tion” that is carried out (the effects of the definition); 3) “mo-
dality” of the definition (the technique which is used to define)
and 4) “form” (if it is explicit or implicit):
1) In the context of the first indicator, “definitions in terms of
the object”, we ha ve “real” defi nition and “nominal” definitions.
In fact, this division makes up the “great divide” of definitions,
that is, whether it is a “real” or “nominal” definition which is
intended. Authors affirm: when a definition corresponds to a
nominal definition for the question, “what does X mean”, what
follows is a vocable; if it corresponds to a real definition, the
question changes: “What ‘thing’ is X?”; and, from there, the
“nature” of the object is given.
In this way, by a “real definition”, the expression is under-
stood through whatever is indicated as a thing or phenomenon
seeking to emphasize, collect, reflect, or look at the immutable
nucleus of the entity, the nucleus that distinguishes it from
other things or phenomena. But, epistemologically, every at-
tempt at approaching a “real” definition is doomed to failure.
As far as this is concerned, it’s enough to establish that there is
no way to satisfactorily explain this “nature” that covers the
supposed essence of the real definition; because this “nature”,
in final analysis, constitutes the mere subjective position of
whoever affirms it.
However, observations like this haven’t impeded the persis-
tence of some theoreticians in search of this said essence. With
relation to this, a large portion of mistakes are due to the
phrasal constructions that formulate them, and so tend to sim-
plify the statement which serves as the definition. It is fre-
quently sai d: in the stat ement “‘Chi en’ means ‘dog’” , what may
be apparent at first glance is that “canine” is from the root of
the word chien. But what is implied here is only what in this
other phrase is made explicit: that “the word chien and the word
‘dog’ both mean the same animal”. Weighing this, some au-
thors, with the etimology of the terms, manifest the desire to
reach this “real” meaning believing that, through this, through
the search of the word’s origin, they obtain the essence of the
meaning, which is obviously a mistake since, when taken to its
conclusion, what is obtained is probably a clarification of the
use of a term in a given era.
The professor Émile Benveniste, who does not commit this
error, satisfies, in every way, the curiosity about the origin:
“Thanks to the Iranian and the Indian, we reconstruct the
prehistory of the Latin ius. The Indo-European word yus means
‘the state of regularity, of normality that is required by ritual
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 29
rules’. In Latin, this state is affected by the double statute that
we have just distinguished in Indo-Iranian. The notion of ius
allows two conditions. One is the factual situation characterized
by the derivative iustus in legal expressions: iustae nuptiae
‘legitamate marriage’; iusta uxor ‘legitamate spouse’, that is,
‘in conformity with the state of ius. The other is distinguished
by the expression ius dicere. Here, ius means ‘the formula of
normality’, placing it within the conformity required. That is
the fundamental idea of the notion of ‘law’ in Rome” (Ben-
“Nominal definitions” (also known as conceptualists) are
those which provide the meaning of a term, name, words or
symbols, since this recognizes that what is always being de-
fined is the vocable, and not a thing. However, its backdrop
consists of the idea that a word isn’t a natural attribute that a
man discovers, but something that is accepted or rejected when
it is linked to a meaning. This position differs from the last one
in the exact sense that to understand that the object of the defi-
nitions are words is to consider that to define is to make a
proposition; a proposition to understand or make use of a word
with a determined meaning and not the search for the essence
of the entity. The nominal definitions can be distinguished by
descriptive nominal definition and prescriptive nominal defini-
tions. “Descriptive” nominal definitions are those which pro-
vide the information on how a word is being effectively used;
whereas “prescriptive” definitions are those which establish
how a word should be used.
2) In the second point, “definitions in terms of function”, we
have-and this is a simplified catalog-“lexical” definitions,
“stipulatives” definitions, “redefinitions”, “persuasive” defini-
tions, and “contextuals” definitions (Copi & Cohen, 1994).
2.1) “Lexical definitions”. Of all of these, certainly the most
easily encountered are lexical definitions. They are called
“lexicals” (lexicographicals or verbals) because they commu-
nicate or describe the meaning of a word using other words,
with the intention of clarifying how the word has been used
(from lexicon in the sense of “dictionary”). They are normally
called explicit definitions (or synonyms). For example: “Sin-
gle” means “a non-married adult”. This type of definition can
be found in legal works when it is affirmed that “law” in its
objective meaning signifies “a gathering of norms produced by
a certain institutional apparatus”. It should be observed that this
definition doesn’t represent an innovation in legal vocabulary.
In this way, it can be affirmed that if it is said that “objective
law” is understood to be “the study of the decision-making
techniques of judges”, because it clashes with the linguistic
tradition, this definition is not correct. In these terms it is de-
scriptive, but provides information about a use that is integral to
a specific field that is under examination. Another example:
a) “Cadeira” (Portuguese for “chair”): a piece of furniture
that is a seat supported by legs, with a back and, some-
b) “Cadeira”: a biped animal that comes out to feed at
It is known that only definition a) integrates the definition of
“cadeira” considering the common usage in the Portuguese lan-
guage, so that b) is incorrect.
2.2) “Stipulatives definitions”. But it is possible that one
doesn’t want to know what a term means, but to formulate a
new definition for a term that already possesses numerous
meanings. In this case, it’s necessary to delimit the confines of
the meaning of the vocable in its new technical version. It is
this definition that is frequently called a “stipulative” definition;
stipulative because it prescribes a certain use that the word must
have, the use that its user establishes (Scarpelli, 1985).
With stipulation it may be said that the definition is neither
true nor false, only advantageous or disadvantageous, clear or
obscure, precise or imprecise, useful or not useful, suitable or
not depending on its objective (Guastini, 2004). And this is due
to the fact that a stipulative definition consists of a proposal of
use. A stipulative definition informs how the term should or
must be us ed fr om a c er ta in moment forward (Fávero & Villaça,
1998). In this way, the stipulation is wholly admissible from a
given meaning for the Portuguese word “direito” (law) in order
to serve the purposes of a specific study :
a) “Law”: “A grouping of mandatory terms that deter-
mine the social relations imposed at all times by the
group to which they belong” (Levy-Bruhl, 1997);
b) “Law”: “A group of norms that expresses the will of the
working class, directed by the Communist Party, and of
the other workers led by those; whose contents are de-
termined, in the end, by the conditions of their material
existence” (Alexandrov, 1974);
c) “Law”: “Historic-cultural reality ordered by an attrib-
uted bilateral form according to values of familiarity”
2.3) “Redefinitions”. It may be said that an expression (word)
is vague when it lacks precision in its meaning, so that it is
impossible to determine the limits of its range of application.
Since ordinary usage can’t serve as a resource for a solution,
lexicographical definitions cannot help us to solve this problem.
A “redefinition” (or explicative definition) is a definition that
reduces this vagueness because, although it falls within the area
of the ordinary usage of the term, this is accepted up to the
point in which it does not present imprecision in order to later
resolve the remainder with a stipulation. Think for example to
the term “young”; “young” is clearly a vague term. How many
years old should a person be to be considered young? And to no
longer be young? A redefinition maintains the understanding of
bei n g a y ou t h ( Fo r e x a mple: youth is the same in a boy or a girl)
increasing to a certain age (until twenty-one years). Since re-
definitions are in part lexicographical and in part stipulative,
they are only in part susceptible of truth and falsity; in other
words, they are truth-functional up to the point in which they
conform or not to what is established by ordinary usage. As far
as stipulation is concerned (in the part that corresponds to a
“new” meaning) true or false are not applicable; one may only
speak of convenience or inconvenience, utility or inutility, cor-
rectness or incorrectness.
2.4) “Persuasive definitions”. The purpose of “persuasive”
definitions consists in influencing attitudes. With this in mind,
it must be observed that, for a definition to be persuasive, it is
enough that it be enunciated in emotive language or in a lan-
guage whose rhetorical purpose is to influence people: persua-
sive definitions are linked to the function that they exercise and
not to a specific entity or object. Therefore, its inclusion here
means that this catalog is superior to any definition and, in the-
ory, can be used with the objective of arousing reactions of
attraction as well as repulsion.
2.5) “Contextual definitions”. “Contextual” definitions indi-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
cate the meaning that a word takes in a particular linguistic
situation. Unlike ordinary definitions, here the formulation
technique does not allow the given equivalent expression to be
substituted by any statement since it is linked to the contextual-
ized circumstance by the clarified concept.
3) As to the technique of definition, one can distinguish de-
notative and connotative definitions.
The technique of denotation consists of showing the literal
meaning, or rather, that which is present in dictionaries. There-
fore, they are “denotative” as definitions, that is, they indicate a
common constant, explicit characteristic, or property. This is
not to be confused with the concept of meaning, because vari-
ous denotative expressions may be applied to they same thing
and vary its meaning: “soliped” and “domestic quadroped” can
be applied to the term “horse”, but by themselves they mean
different things, because “soliped” is a term that applies to
every animal whose foot has a single hoof; and “quadroped”
refers to every mammal that has four feet or paws. In this way,
one may say that law is “natural”, “positive”, “international”, or
“ancient”—all of this is law even though, clearly, they don’t
mean the same thing. On the other hand, in a situation where
the term “doesn’t have any meaning”, one may say that the
term in question is meaningless.
The connotative technique consists of showing suggested
meanings, those meanings which result from associated ideas.
Therefore, definitions are “connotative” when one wants to
indicate a characteristic or property which is called common to
everything called by the same name.
Because of this, when a vocable is connotative, it is con-
ceived of in such a way that it includes everything that the term
is intentionally comprised of, that is, its figurative or suggested
meaning. Therefore, the same expression can be applied to
equal things and produce different associations. Starting with
the vocable “constant”, one can say: “continuous” or “contin-
ued”, but, according to the application of the concept, it can
vary in meaning as “loyal”, “unshakable”, “assiduous”, “tena-
cious”, “right”, “durable”, “fixed” etc. These meanings which
go beyond the first synonymous association constitute connote-
From this perspective, in establishing the meaning of a word
(like “law”) one can provide a connotative definition as easily
as a denotative definition. Here is an example: it is affirmed
that norms endowed with negative (the use of force) sanction
(normative consequence) are ‘law’ and that, therefore, there
will only exist ‘law’ if it is set before a grouping of punitive
norms. “Operative definitions” and definitions by genre and
differences are connotatives; “ostensive definitions” are deno-
tative. In that sense:
1) “Operative definitions”. “Operative” or “operational” defi-
nitions correspond to the specification of a procedure that must
be understood so that, with this understanding, one might ob-
tain its idea through the clarification of the indicated result in
practice. For example: one may demonstrate the understanding
of weight by specifying the technique for weighing.
2) “Definitions by genre and difference”. Definitions by
“genre and specific difference” correspond to the technique of
indicating firstly the class of entities to which the indicated
thing belong in order to then determine the specific characteris-
tics that separate it from other things that are in the same class.
For example: Man is a “rational” animal. With the addition of
“rational”, “man” (“human being”) is separated from the rest of
3) “Ostensive definitions”. Another way to define something
is to say what the thing is through examples; these are “osten-
sive” definitions. This is the case that occurs when one seeks to
define “paper”, saying: “a page in a book is paper”; or when
one tries to explain what a “dog” is, emphasizing common
names like “Rex”, “Fido”, “Lassie” etc. It’s clear that the defi-
nition that serves this function suffers severe limitations. Be-
cause its clarification depends on examples, one might imagine
a village located in a remote area, and desire that it be ex-
plained ostensibly by what a skyscraper is. Without similar
possibilities for this, and in the absence of the knowledge of
any other locations, it will be difficult to successfully use an
It may be observed, moreover, that stipulatives definitions
and operatives may be used to increase the vocabulary of the
person for whom they were elaborated, or to promote a way of
reducing information. Lexicographical definitions in the same
way serve to eliminate ambiguity and redefinition serves to
reduce vagueness. Stipulative definitions serve to reduce am-
biguity as well as, in determined cases, vagueness. And of
course, any of them may be utilized in order to persuade, de-
pending on how they are used.
4) As to the “form”, a definition can be explicit or implicit. A
definition is “explicit” when it establishes a relation between a
definiendum and a definiens, between the concept to be de-
fined and the clarifying concept. This form of defining is very
common in mathematics, although within the legal field it is not
frequently used. This equivalence, expressed in symbols by
“=df”, requires that what is to be defined appears only on one
side of the equation. A definition is said to be “implicit”, in-
stead, when it clarifies the meaning of a term by means of ex-
pressions in which the term appears. An example of implicit
definition can be found in the brazilian civil cod e , art. 93:
“Goods are considered belongings which, not constituting
integral parts, are destined in a lasting manner for use,
service, or embellishment by another.”
“Norms”, “Normative Dispositions”, and “Chains of
Considering that texts are linguistic formulations, and that a
normative text does not always have a single meaning, this can
rise difficulties for its intended users, who need to know, in
order to obey the norms, what the normative texts mean.
To avoid such problems, the legislator resorts to definitions.
The reason is that by offering more precise terminology, one
may seek to minimize the variations in meaning, so that the
expectations of the intended users as far as what is commanded
and what is applicable to a certain universe of cases becomes
more certain. In this way, defining norms go on to fulfill an
essential role in the legal domain.
Some specific observations are now necessary.
“Norm” must be understood as an interpreted normative text,
or rather, the meaning of a statement present in a normative
document (Guastini, 1990). Therefore, “norm” and “interpreta-
tion” are terms that go together, even though they obviously
must be distinguished from one another: a normative text needs
to be interpreted so that, through the description of its meaning,
the norm can be obtained (Fávero & Villaça, 2005).
The norm, in this manner, is the result of the interpretive act;
its point of arrival, not of departure. The point of departure is
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 31
the legislation, the normative documents, or the legal texts that
are composed of statements elaborated with (arranged in terms
of) a specific “legislative” or “nomographic” technique. As to
the result of the interpretation, the normative problem is a
problem which finds its problematic base in the linguistic cor-
rection of its own text and in the factual situations that inform a
1) The term “norm” is used to indicate the structural rela-
tion between a typical fact and a legal consequence (“If
typical situation ‘p’ (descriptive aspect) is verified, then
legal consequence ‘S’ (prescriptive aspect) follows”).
Despite this, legislative language rarely groups descrip-
tion and consequence in a single text or statement. This is
the reason why it is often said that a “norm fragment”
corresponds to a statement that requires another in order
to obtain its normative meaning, the norm N. It is inter-
esting to observe that this “norm fragment” is known by
jurists as “disposition”. In this way, “norm fragments”
and “dispositions” are understood as synonymous terms;
2) Although this treatment causes no harm, perhaps it
would be appropriate to now establish this idea more pre-
cisely. “Disposition” stands for “normative statement”;
“norm fragment” stands for “norm”. The references,
therefore, are distinct. When someone mentions a “dispo-
sition”, this may or may not be a part of a norm, whereas
when a “norm fragment” i s mentioned, the segment of the
statement is part of a statement that makes up a norm.
This differentiation is necessary because unintelligible
dispositions (be they ungrammatical or incomplete), al-
though they are dispositions, will not result in any norm;
therefore, they can’t be considered “norm fragments”. Or
rather, only “dispositions” that are really meaningful can
be considered fragments. It is clear that a norm can result
from a single provision. For example, Article 121 of the
Brazilian Penal Code: Killing someone: Penalty—6 to 20
years of incarceration. In this case, the configuration is
simple: N = D. However, when faced with a case where a
norm results from many provisions, this configuration
becomes more complex.
This is to say: N = D1 (or Fg1) + D2 (or Fg2) + D3 (or Fg3)
+ DN (or FgN).
In this manner, with greater perceptiveness, the fragments
that together form a norm constitute a “chain” (D1). So this
sequence of worked fragments may be understood as a “chain
of dispositions” (D1 + D2 + D3 etc.) by the interpreter in order
to obtain the norm.
Let’s take for example the norm that solves the problem of
presidential vacancy (and this is only one of many imaginable
examples). This norm is extracted from, at least, the following
1) CF, art. 78: “The President and the Vice-President of
the Republic will take office in session of the National
Congress, taking the oath to maintain, defend, and fulfill
the Constitution, obey the law, promote the general wel-
fare of the Brazilian people, and sustain the union, integ-
rity, and independence of Brazil.
If, having passed 10 days from the fixed date for taking
office, the President or Vice-President, save motive of
greater force, has not assumed the office, it shall be de-
2) “In case of impeachment of the President or the
Vice-President, or vacancy of the respective offices, the
succession to the office of the Presidency will be to call
the President of the House of Representatives, the Presi-
dent of the National Senate, and the President of the Fed-
eral Supreme Court”;
3) CF, art. 81: “If the offices of the President and the
Vice-President become vacant, an election shall be held
90 days after the opening of the last vacancy:
a) If a vacancy occurs in the last two years of the presi-
dential term, the election for both offices will be held
thirty days after the last vacancy, by the National Con-
gress, in the manner of the law.
b) In any of these cases, the persons elected must com-
plete the term of their predecessors.”
4) CF, art. 82: “The term of the President of the Republic
is four years, and shall begin in the first of January of the
year following the election”.
It may be observed that disposition 1) provides information
with respect to what is (there being) a vacancy (what means
“vacancy”), but provides no solution; disposition 2), although
establishing the sequence of succession, does not resolve the
problem of vacancy because it is dependent on the understand-
ing of dispositions 1), 3), and 4). This last one regulate the pe-
riod of complete execution of the Presidency and Vice-Presi-
dency. That is, other dispositions should be cited to complete
the idea of who carries out the Presidency of the House of Rep-
resentatives and, if necessary, of the Federal Senate and the
Federal Supreme Court. Or rather, thanks to this chain of dis-
positions it is possible to know what the norm is in case of suc-
The importance of definitions within this context may be
called into question. This will be dealt with in the subsequent
Should the Legislator Define?
Condemnations of legislative definitions are common. It is
often said that preference should be given to doctrine in sup-
plying the meaning of legal terms that are ambiguous, vague
etc., not to the le gislator. The most frequent arguments are that
legislative definitions impede the “progress” of the legal insti-
tutions and that to legislatively define causes politics to endan-
ger the process. What results from this is that legislative defini-
tions are not considered linked to the interpreters.
Concerning to the first aspect, one must establish at least two
points. First, that if definitions can be modified, so can legisla-
Second, as far as political danger is concerned, there is no
reason to believe that the formulation of any legislative defini-
tion is worse, or better, than any other formulation. On the con-
trary: the use of vague and indefinite expressions is common to
dictatorship periods. Such usage, which is not unknown, though
principally within the area of criminal law, has been used as a
principle for safety, and as an expedient of wide use by arbi-
Furthermore, we forget that a legislative definition not only
accomplishes the task of providing precision to concepts, but
that it also constitutes a legislative technique that can modify
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
norms in a single act. Take, for example, the lowering of the
legal age from 18 to 16 that is being discussed in Brazil, the
basis of which is the modification of the specific norm defining
Besides this, in every communicative act it is necessary to
presuppose a minimum parameter of meaning. It is evident that
the shared use between agents of the same vocabulary (seman-
tic field) permits, in many cases, to consider solved this prob-
lem. But it is possible that one wants to perform a speech act
whose content is not available in the shared language. It’s clear
that, because of this, since even experts need to find a parame-
ter of use, legal controversies depend exactly from the referred
absence. This is why there are situations in which the legisla-
tive definition is of utmost importance. The paradigmatic case
is the example of the definition of “adulthood”.
All of this, as has been illustrated, led however someone to
the conclusion that legislative definitions shouldn’t be consid-
ered at all, or rather that, since they are often inexact, interpret-
ers should be free to dismiss them from consideration. This
conclusion can in turn be read in two ways:
1) Legislative definitions are not always correct, and this
justifies their dismission by intepreters;
2) Not all legislative definitions are prescriptive, and for
this reason not all have to be considered.
With respect to thesis 1), it is not valid because it assumes
the idea that there is a “correct” (or “true”) definition, while, as
we saw, definitions don’t refer to an “essential” fact that makes
it possible to choose the “correct” one. Definitions can “repro-
duce” a linguistic use (lexicographic definitions) or establish a
new use (stipulative definitions), or, in some way, carry out
both tasks (redefinitions). Therefore, when a legislator produces
a definition that doesn’t combine with the current use, this is
clearly a stipulation, and when a definition produced by a leg-
islator only in part reflects the current use, the legislator is re-
defining. What must be firmly criticized is not the incorrectness
(falsity) of a definition, but legislator’s lack of precision in
defining an expression.
With respect to thesis 2), one must, to best understand it, in-
jects some more precision. If it merely means 2.1) that not all
definitions constitute a proposal of use, then it is correct, as it
was previously illustrated; if it means 2.2) that not all legisla-
tor’s statements result in “norms of conduct”, this is also cor-
rect, because there are norms of structure whose function is to
confer institutional powers (not involving, therefore, a deontic
qualification of conduct). Nevertheless, neither version 2.1) nor
version 2.2) allow to disregard leg isl ative definitions.
First construction (interpretation) does not imply the above
mentioned conclusion because there is no relation between the
function that the legislative definition perform and its impor-
tance to the user. At least two considerations clarify how think-
ing otherwise would be irrational.
First, let us consider “authentic interpretations”. If one is to
understand that “authentic interpretations” are distinct from
“legislative definitions”, one might ask what justifies accepting
a regulatory force in the first case and refusing it in relation to
the legislative definitions.
Second, if one is to understand that “authentic interpreta-
tions” and “legislative definitions” are the same technical regu-
lation, it would be treated differently, which would be unusual.
Lastly, it must be noted that, as a fragment of a norm, legis-
lative wording, whether “proposing” or “describing” a term,
can be used to either draw up a norm of “conduct” as well as a
norm of “structure”, that is to say that one can use a legislative
definition to draw up a prohibitive norm as well as to draw up a
norm for the allocation of power (i.e. a definition that provides
for both age groups can be used to form the parameter of a
prohibitive norm or a norm that enables someone to modify a
The precedent thesis implicitly rely on essentialism about
meaning, but to admit the possibility of “defective” definitions
this assumption is not necessary. Definitions are “defective”,
poorly elaborated in the light of the ends for the achievement of
which they’re drafted. To avoid this result, legislators must
improve their drafting techniques. And it is important not to
forget that a “legislative definition” is part of the speech of the
legislator and that, for this reason, the interpreter cannot ignore
the proposal of determination of meaning it represents. No in-
terpretive technique justifies discrediting legal materials.
Legislative Defini tion
As we said a “vocable” is a word or term. We shall call every
term or vocable contained in a legal statement a “normative
vocable” or a “normative term”. It has also been said that a
“statement” is part of a speech; and that a statement that forms
a clause is any linguistic expression of a syntactic form (ac-
cording to certain grammar) that is complete and endowed with
meaning. Legal texts (or normative texts) are normative docu-
ments. They are “documents” because they are material sup-
ports or signs which evoke the existence of a determined situa-
tion or happening; they are “normative” because they result
from the activity of agents provided with the power or compe-
tence to formulate them, a power or competence conferred by
norms. In their most common fo rm, “normative documents” are
known as “legislation”.
If “to define” is understood to be an attribution of meaning, a
term or vocable is legally defined when a legal statement gives
it a (totally o partially) determined meaning. A legal statement
that defines a term is a “legal or legislative definition”.
If “to define” is understood as an attribution of sense, a word
or term is legally defined when, fully or partially, the legal
wording attributes a certain sense to it. Legal wording that de-
fines a legally defined term is, evidently, a “legislative” or “le-
gal” definition. Therefore, any legally defi ned te rm or wo rd is a
legal or regulatory term or word.
However, the legally defined word is not a legal or regula-
tory term or word because it was defined by legal wording, as
there are legal words not defined by legal texts. The inclusion
of a word in the legislation is not dependent on its legal defini-
tion, but on its formulation by a regulatory authority. In other
words, there can be legal words (created by a legislator and,
therefore, present in the legislation) that have not been defined
in a legislative body of a legal system. This is a legally unde-
fined term (present in the legislation but not “defined” in it).
Thus, whether it is defined or not is not the criterion for inclu-
3The PAC-Proposed Amendment to the Constitution, No. 33 of 2012,
amends the wording of Articles 129 and 228 of the Federal Constitution,
adding a single paragraph to provide for the possibility of disregarding
criminal incapacity for minors over sixteen and under eighteen years of age
by complementary law. sion in the legislation; it is the fulfillment of the secondary rules.
In such case, the undefined legal words are “regulatory” be-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 33
cause they were drawn up by regulatory authorities under a
legislative procedure laid down by the very legal system, and
Following that conclusion, “legislative definition” must be
understood as all wording that, as part of a regulatory text (a
provision), indicates the meaning of some expression of the
legal language, in other words, its definiendum. The objective
of legislative definitions, as any other definitions, is to reduce
ambiguity and vagueness and to clarify the meaning of terms to
be handled by the operators of the legislative assembly. There
exists, therefore, legal wording Ejl that contains word X, and a
legal definition present in legal wording Ejl, in which word X is
defined. Both are drawn up by a regulatory authority of the
legal system in question.
The Stylization of Legal Definition
Limiting our attention to what are called “explicit defini-
tions”, some notes can be made concerning their common
stylization (Luzzati, 1982).
Legal definitions are commonly introduced in the following
ways: 1) indirectly; 2) using a conditional clause; 3) incident-
tally. Despite these variations, however, it can be said that the
norms of definition fit the following formula: “X’s are identi-
fied by category Y”.
Norms of definition are norms that fulfill exclusive and in-
clusive functions: inclusive regarding to the identified objects,
and exclusive as they concern others. This is the case of art. 87
of Brazilian Civil Code which says: “divisible goods are those
which can be divided without alteration of their substance, con-
siderable decrease of value, or harming the use for which they
But norms of definition can also be subdivided into concep-
tual norms of definition and extensional norms of definition.
“Conceptual norms of definition” are those that establish the
meaning of something4 whereas “extensional norms of defini-
tion” (also known as classificatories) establish attributes to a
category that to them is co-extensive5.
Through the expressions “By X, Y is understood”, or “X
designates Y”, or even, “X means Y”, stipulative legal defini-
tions are generally introduced6.
“Contextual definitions” follow the structure, “X is Y
when ···”; where the contextual character is explicit in the se-
Are Legislative and Doctrinal Definitions Different?
Misunderstandings and confusions arise when the sender of a
message intends to refer to something about which the receiver
has a doubt that leaves open more possibilities of interpretation.
This is normally what happens when one mentions the term
(expression) “legal language”. In fact, through “legal language”
we can mean:
1) The language in which the norms are expressed (for-
2) The language that jurists use in their specialized duties.
In order to avoid problems, to designate the first case we will
make use of the expression “legal language”, while to refer to
the second case we will use the expression “language of jurists”.
Legal language can be understood, in this way, as a normative
language (language of legal texts); despite this, the language of
jurists can be recognized—at least in the civil law tradition—as
the speech of jurists when it assimilates legal language as its
Karl Olivecrona once wrote that “Our legal language is sub-
stantially a part of current language” (Olivecrona, 1999). Le-
gal language, even though it is a technical language, it is ex-
pressed in natural language (Portuguese, English, Spanish, Ital-
ian, French, etc.), and it is not unusual that it depends on rules,
practices, and also conventions that inform and condition the
natural language of the community in which it has become part
(For example: in Brazil, Portuguese).
From this it has been affirmed that there are no syntactical
peculiarities in legal language that make it possible to distin-
guish it from natural language. This, in spite of the fact that
there exists in the language of the legislator some semantic
characteristics due to the influence of this in forming the mean-
ing of some terms that it utilizes (Wrobléwski, 2003). However,
the semantic richness of the natural language can be a problem,
because the vagueness and ambiguity of its terms present an
additional difficulty in the elaboration of normative texts
It’s clear that technical language, with the elaboration of spe-
cific terms (such as: theft, robbery etc.) can reduce the uncer-
tainty about the meaning, but, on the other hand, increases the
distance between the technical operators and the non-technical
ones; and this becomes even more complicated when, for ex-
ample, the question has to do with the type of language a con-
stitution must use and the consequences of the choice effected.
In fact, the more technical is constitutional language, the less
intelligible it will be for the lay operator; and, the less technical
it is, the more difficult it will be for the technical interpreter
when attributing meaning to the normative text.
If the language of jurists depends on legal language, and if
legal language depends on natural language, then language of
jurists too depends on natural language. It is evident, then, that
norms, normative propositions, legal language, and the lan-
guage of jurists are notions that maintain strong relations (ties):
legal language is the language of normative documents; the
language of jurists basically is composed of propositions about
norms, such as: “A norm N is a valid norm in Brazilian legal
4Brazilian Civil Code, Art. 42. Legal entities of external public law are
foreign states and all persons who are governed by international public law.
5Brazilian Civil Code, Art. 87: “Divisible goods are those that can fractured
without alteration of their substance, considerable loss of value, or loss o
use as intended”.
6In accordance with the main section of Article 17 of Decree 4595/64: “For
the purposes of the legislation in force, financial institution are those
considered to be public or private legal entities that have as the principal
activity or accessory, the collection, intermediation, or application o
financial resources of their own or of others, in national or foreign currency,
and the custody of the value of the pr operties of others”.
7Brazilian Civil Code, Art. 84: “The materials intended any construction,
whilst not in use, shall retain their characteristic as furnishings; shall
reacquire th at characteristic from th e demolition of any building”.
Keeping in mind the reconstruction of legal definitionthe
answer to our present question is: legislative and doctrinal defi-
nitions differ, but meet in various ways on the linguistic plane.
Doctrinal language is basically descriptive (composed of de-
scription) even though the language of the legislator is prescrip-
tive language. The first lies in the metalinguistic plane; the
second lies in the object-language from which legal scholars
elaborate their propositions. This is why one must not confuse a
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
“legislative definition” with “doctrinal definitions”: a legisla-
tive definition is part of the speech of the “legislator” whereas a
doctrinal definition is part of the speech of “jurists”. One may
then say, on one hand, that either the doctrine exercises a cog-
nitive function—transmitting some information about norma-
tive materials—or it exercises a pragmatic persuasive func-
tion-defendingcertain normative (ethical, political) position.
Some Pathologies of Legislative Definitions
What has been said before does not mean that a legislative
definition is always a good definition. In this section the main
problems depending from an inadequate definition will be ana-
The first problem is the “problem of topography” (topog-
raphical problem). Since the objective of legislative definition
is to facilitate the composition of the normative text in which a
determined vocable is used (present), the rule must be the in-
clusion of the defined term in the same normative document.
When the definition is differently codified, many serious prob-
lems can result. Nevertheless, the most fundamental difficulty
is that of knowing from which of the innumerable legislative
documents the definition (for a case) must be “extract ed”.
A second and frequent problem is the “problem of inconven-
ience or poor usage”. As it has already been pointed out, the
objective of establishing a legislative definition is that of de-
termining the meaning of terms, phrases, or vocables present in
texts or normative statements seeking to minimize semantic
instability. Therefore, legislative definitions constitute an im-
portant instrument through which the legislator contrasts the
ambiguity and vagueness of a usual term, making it less uncer-
tain in the act of interpretation of different users. It is in this
sense that definitions don’t act upon norms (interpreted state-
ments) but upon other statements (texts that have to be inter-
To fulfill this task, a definition must be employed in a way
consistent with its objectives. An example of this can be the
perception that a stipulative definition, being a prescription for
the use of a certain vocable bringing new meaning, can com-
promise the transparency of the legislative message in case
there is a meaning that has already been widely circulated. In
this case, it’s better to use a redefinition.
The third problem is the “problem of incomplete definitions”.
An incomplete definition lacks some element of definiens that
is necessary to clarify the definiendum. And this is evidently a
problem, because it is obvious that the supplied definition
doesn’t solve the problem of meaning, but amplifies it.
The fourth and final problem that we would like to empha-
size is the “problem of circularity”. There is circularity when-
ever the definiens overlaps totally or partially with the defini-
endum. In this case the offered definition produces a no result.
Ten Recommendations for a Good Definition
One of the reasons why there are difficulties in the determi-
nation of the meaning of a phrase depends the various alterna-
tive meanings with which terms are used. This is why the in-
troduction of legislative speech (language) is only advanta-
geous when the terms contained in the definiens arouse less
controversy than those which are found in the definiendum. It’s
then very important that the definitions are well-formulated
(Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). Therefore it is recommended
that at least 10 fundamental rules be followed:
1) The term to be defined cannot appear in the defining
The definition definiens can’t include the term being de-
fined definiendum. A definition that violates this rule-as
the following example: “A rectangle is a rectangular
geometric shape”—is useless given the vicious circle it
2) A definition must not be formulated in n egati ve ter ms .
To be rigorous, a definition can’t be formulated in nega-
tive terms. The reason for this is simple: a definition must
explain how to use a term and not what it doesn’t mean
(how not to use it). Therefore, the following is an example
of a definition to be avoided: “Solid is everything which
is not liquid”.
3) A definition must be useful and contain what is neces-
A definition must be used not only to precise the technical
or common use of a vocable, but also when it is used with
a meaning that is not common. This is because for a defi-
nition to be useful, it must be suitable, with its use, to the
objective. Exactly because of this, it is not recommended
to use definitions that only reiterate current usage which
will either disturb an established practice or simply be re-
dundant. Moreover, the definition must contain what is
necessary, no more and no less. The following definition
contains more than is necessary: “A triangle is a polygon
with three angles and three sides.” The excess is the term
“polygon”. The following definition contains less infor-
mation than is necessary: “A triangle is a polygon.” The
lack of the information that a triangle possesses three an-
gles and three sides compromises the understanding of the
definiendum. The presence of a term that needs to be de-
fined compromises the intelligibility of the initial defini-
4) The definition must not contain ambiguities, be obscure,
or contain figurative speech.
If the legislator intends to limit the discretion of the user
(of the interpreter), then must be precise in his statements;
definitions act, here, in an important manner. Ambiguous
terms must be avoided because they impede an explana-
tion of the definiendum. Terms or those that contain a
figurative meaning, because they compromise the clarity
of the definition.
5) There must be reciprocity between the vocable to be
defined and the definition.
The fifth point is that there must be reciprocity between
the vocable to be defined and the definition, in the sense
that they can switch places.
6) The same term must not be defined various times in
According to this requirement distinct terms must be used
to express distinct meanings, and the same terms must be
used with the same meaning. If in legislation a single term
is used to express many distinct meanings this will gener-
ate serious problems in the applicative field; and this may
also be said of distinct terms that are employed with the
7) Definitional dispositions must contain only the defini-
The seventh rule means that it is dangerous that a disposi-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 35
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
tion, besides defining, adds other elements to the defining
provision. This because, besides the confusion of state-
ments, since a definition is cited many times, every time
there is a cross reference to the disposition that contains it
it will be cited more than the mere definition.
8) Definitions must be located at the beginning of the le-
This is a pragmatic recommendation with the aim of
making easier the attribution of to the vocables used in the
sequence of dispositions. Besides this, to employ a term
before giving a definition of it would make more difficult
the understanding of the structure of dispositions.
9) The defined term must be made clear.
This recommendation is listed in case it is necessary to
know that the vocable is being defined. One of the ways
to do this is to always write what is to be defined in capi-
10) A definition must be self-sufficient.
This means that there must be a full definition in the state-
ment that makes it unnecessary to search another provi-
sion for some element which completes it.
It seems clear that these recommendations are not applicable
to every type of definition. For example, it doesn’t make sense
to use the fifth rule in an ostensive definition. But, all in all,
these rules serve as an indication of the main defects a defini-
tion can suffer, especially lexica l on e s.
Every definition in a text is a disembodied act: it suffers the
effects of reality and, therefore, of its use. Or rather, the enun-
ciated focus shouldn’t be confused with the situation of com-
munication: if the legislative definitions reveal pretensions (in
the case of the legislator) this fact of the original speech re-
quires other pieces of practical speech to be understood.
In this respect, ambiguity constitutes the main problem of a
legislative definition and, in particular, syntactic ambiguity.
Semantic ambiguity less so, keeping in view that this is the
object of occurrence in every definition. In these terms, despite
the fact that a definition is an expedient for assigning a meaning,
its written transmission requires interpretation. With this, in
case the legislative definition has been formulated in an am-
biguous or vague manner, this compromised formulation will
be fatally reflected in the understanding of the attributed mean-
ing by the legislator. In other words, a legislative definition
doesn’t guarantee, in absolute terms, that the meaning attributed
by the legislator to a vocable X will be the same meaning that
the user will attribute to it: everything depends on the very
construction of the legislative definition and on the practice that
will result from it.
However, one must wait and see if a good definition aids in
the demarcation of the area of use (besides resolving political
problems relative to the peculiarities of certain sectors of law,
like “criminal” law), in the same manner that a terrible defini-
tion can generate serious problems and no small grumblings
among its users.
The purpose of this study has been to introduce the most
sensitive technical aspects of generating better definitions
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