Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Government's Out-of-Date Definition of Writing

There's a federal law that defines writing. Because the meaning of the words in our laws isn't always clear, the very first of our federal laws, the Dictionary Act--the name for Title 1, Chapter 1, Section 1, of the U.S. Code--defines what some of the words in the rest of the Code mean, both to guide legal interpretation and to eliminate the need to explain those words each time they appear. Writing is one of the words it defines, but the definition needs an upgrade.

The Dictionary Act consists of a single sentence, an introduction and ten short clauses defining a minute subset of our legal vocabulary, words like person, officer, signature, oath, and last but not least, writing. This is necessary because sometimes a word's legal meaning differs from its ordinary meaning. But changes in writing technology have rendered the Act's definition of writing seriously out of date.

The Dictionary Act tells us that in the law, singular includes plural and plural, singular, unless context says otherwise; the present tense includes the future; and the masculine includes the feminine (but not the other way around--so much for equal protection).

The Act specifies that signature includes "a mark when the person making the same intended it as such," and that oath includes affirmation. Apparently there's a lot of insanity in the law, because the Dictionary Act finds it necessary to specify that "the words 'insane' and 'insane person' and 'lunatic' shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis."

The Dictionary Act also tells us that "persons are corporations . . . as well as individuals," which is why AT&T is currently trying to convince the Supreme Court that it is a person entitled to "personal privacy." (The Act doesn't specify whether "insane person" includes "insane corporation.")

And then there's the definition of writing. The final provision of the Act defines writing to include "printing and typewriting and reproductions of visual symbols by photographing, multigraphing, mimeographing, manifolding, or otherwise." There's no mention of photocopying, or of computers and mobile phones, now the primary means of transmitting text, though presumably they and Facebook and Twitter and all the writing technologies that have yet to appear are covered by the law's blanket phrase "or otherwise."

Federal law can't be expected to keep up with every writing technology that comes along, but the newest of the six kinds of writing that the Dictionary Act does refer to--the multigraph--was invented around 1900 and has long since disappeared. No one has ever heard of multigraphing, or of manifolding, an even older and deader technology, and for most of us the mimeograph is at best a dim memory. 

Congress considers writing important enough to the nation's well-being to include it in the Dictionary Act, but not important enough to bring up to date, and now, with the 2012 election looming, no member of Congress is likely to support a revision to the current definition that is semantically accurate yet contains no earmarks, and is able to win an up-or-down vote in the House and the Senate, be signed into law by the President, and survive a potential challenge in the courts.

Still, revision is an integral part of writing, and revising the Dictionary Act seems worth a try. For ideas about how to do this, we might consult some dictionaries, since most of them do a better job of defining writing than the authors of the Dictionary Act, whose first concern is not lexicography, but getting re-elected.

The originalists in Congress may prefer to go back to eighteenth-century dictionaries for the revision. If so, they'll find that Nathan Bailey (1736) defines writing as "the art or act of signifying and conveying our ideas to others by letters or characters visible to the eye." And Samuel Johnson (1755) defines it as "a legal instrument; a composure; a book; a written paper of any kind." Good definitions for the Age of Enlightenment, but not much help in the digital age.

Nathan Bailey's definition of writing

Above: The definition of writing from Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum, vol 2, 1736.
Below: the definition from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, 1755.

Samuel Johnson's definition of writing

Believers in American exceptionalism may prefer a homegrown definition. The great American lexicographer Noah Webster (1828) calls writing "the act or art of forming letters and characters, on paper, wood, stone or other material, for the purpose of recording the ideas which characters and words express, or of communicating them to others by visible signs." Like the Dictionary Act, Webster enumerates some, but not all, of the possible kinds of writing (for example, both omit writing with lemon juice, a technology popular among children who hope to grow up to be spies). But Webster adds, "We hardly know which to admire most, the ingenuity or the utility of the art of writing." Including that last comment in a definition would endanger bipartisan support, since Democrats tend to think of writing as ingenious, while the official Tea Party position on writing is that it is utilitarian, but only when done by registered Tea Partiers. Socialists of course see writing as collaborative (there's one Socialist in the House), but that would bring about a world where writing equals Wikipedia, making it way worse than universal health care.

Noah Webster's definition of writing

Above: Definition of writing from Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828.
Below: the definition from Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1961.

Webster's Third: definition of writing

Webster's Third (1961) preserves much of Noah Webster's original, without the editorializing: writing is "the act or art of forming letters on stone, paper, wood, or other suitable medium to record the ideas which characters and words express or to communicate the ideas by visible signs." That's not likely to further the digital revolution. So far only the Oxford English Dictionary adds to the conventional view of writing as a visible medium the nonvisible writing done when computers transfer keystrokes to memory: "The process of causing an item of data to be entered into a store or recorded in or on a storage medium." As if to drive the point home, the OED's latest definitions are only available online.

OED online definition of writing

Excerpt from the definition of writing from the online Oxford English Dictionary. oed.com, 2011.

The problem with the Dictionary Act's definition of writing is that it is specific without being inclusive. The law identifies as writing a number of technologies that many people might not have considered to be writing at the time the statute was drafted. Unfortunately, this attempt at cutting-edge defining now seems quaint but retro: some of the technologies that the Act names are obsolete--even typewriters in America are more likely to be museum pieces or attic junk than writing machines--and it is silent on the new technologies that should be covered by a legal definition.

It's time for our lawmakers to acknowledge that, with more writing done with silicon chips than pen and ink, we're shifting away from mechanically reproducible text to writing on screen, and the forms which writing takes are not just visible representations of our ideas, but machine-readable strings of 1's and 0's, charged particles, nanoswitches flipping on and off, LEDs, pixels, and things not yet dreamt of in our philosophy. Writing is becoming less and less a physical object which can be grasped, or whose physical location can be fixed in time and space, and more and more something that can be coded and streamed, fragmented and rematerialized, zipped and expanded, mashed and remixed, and moved around with the fingertips on a touch screen. Try selling that to a bunch of legislators who think of the internet as a series of tubes.

Of course no legal definition that fits into a single clause can hope to define writing, but at some point Congress needs to bring the Dictionary Act into the twenty-first century by dropping out the antique writing technologies and accommodating the newest ones. (Since the Dictionary Act defines the present as including the future, the new definition of writing won't have to anticipate all the kinds of writing not yet invented.) But given the state of the economy and of the world, and the increasing political rancor at home, redefining writing is not a high legislative priority. So for now the Federal Code will continue to treat writing as the province of multigraphs, manifolds, typewriters, and mimeos. Perhaps by the time Congress gets around to revising Title 1, Chapter 1, Section 1, Facebook and Twitter will be long gone, the digital age will have given way to the next big thing, and writing itself may have become nothing more than an obsolete series of tubes.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 18th 2011, 5:02 AM
Comment by: E H. (Bristol United Kingdom)
I love the article, but all the systems you mention home in on 'visible'. What about braille? Although visible that isn't its intention and its readers aren't interested in the visible.
Friday February 18th 2011, 7:04 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
What should have been a good article is ruined by attemppts at snarky political humor. Since it is obvious that the Dictionary Act has been revised in the past, then revising it now is not an insurmountable task. Nevertheless,since there are urgent matters that our representatives need to address it would seem best to wait for the courts rule whether the law sufficiently covers modern technology.
Friday February 18th 2011, 7:47 AM
Comment by: Andrew D.
I agree with Gordon W. on both the clumsy and inaccurate attempt at politicizing this topic and the concept that The Dictionary Act can be revised. The key to defining writing is to be brief and inclusive without using specific colloquial technology.
Friday February 18th 2011, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Good point re braille. How about "The recording of ideas using a system of representative characters in a physical or digital medium"? This would include stone tablets, writing or printing on paper or any other surface, e-mails and other electronic documents, and any form of duplication or reproduction thereof. It would also include writing music, mathematical formulas, chemical diagrams, and other non-linguistic forms of writing as long as they have a method of being expressed with symbolic representation.
Friday February 18th 2011, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Very interesting, especially for a former student of US politics.

I agree that the definition should be short but not specific. Perhaps something like: Writing is any system of communication that is not vocal, but that contains within it the ability to communicate with language as necessary in a given situation.

I was amazed that a law could be that short! LOL

Good for them, in years gone by!

And yes, let's keep what ideas qualify out of it and let's not have this be a political football.
Friday February 18th 2011, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
The political aspect was great! I discussed this with a coworker and the point I made was that we are not the only ones (were not lexicograhpers) that are passionate about issues we believe should be corrected legislativly. The coworker returned, true, we each can tend to see through our little opening OUR issue. God bless the lexicographers. Adaptiong to politics, I am learning to be more dispassionate, yet, remain tough on the issue I feel strongly about.
Friday February 18th 2011, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Amelia A. (Northbrook, IL)
Before we can propose rewriting the legal defintion of "writing," we should consider the context in which it's used. The introduction to this article leads me to believe that this document doesn't aim to define all usage of the word "writing," but rather its specific usage throughout the U.S. Code. Without a thorough understanding of the U.S. Code, I can't suggest how to rewrite this definition.
Saturday March 5th 2011, 3:47 PM
Comment by: Darcy M. (Coquitlam Canada)
Fascinating journey that is being shared here. Thank you very much for the shared thoughts.


When the definition of "writing" was last done in America, it would of been done in a time when written word was unilatterally relied on to access ideas amoungst people to reach.

However, there are other mediums to reach understanding and agreement amoungst people:

First Nations people of North America have been reaching these same ends of communication for the purposes of governance with oral story for a very very long time.

It may interest some people to know that a 1990s Supreme Court of Canada decision to honour and accept non written evidence; oral evidence, often in the form of traditional aboriginal story telling, in the court of law as equal to written documentation.

Our country is still grampling with the implications, and the consequences are still filtering their way done the system and throughout our culture about as fast as honey dripping from a frozen jar in the fridge...

Moreover, some of our intelectual ellites actually believe that this form of communication, even in a legal context, is in many ways more sophisticated then written word and will benifet our society more as a result.


I am not familiar at all with how the Canadian government defines 'writing' or 'communication', but I would be very inteesting to applymany interesting points of this article to the legal context my own country.

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