The meaning of ‘reasonable’: Evidence from a corpus-linguistic study

In Kevin P. Tobia (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Jurisprudence. Cambridge University Press (forthcoming)
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The reasonable person standard is key to both Criminal Law and Torts. What does and does not count as reasonable behavior and decision-making is frequently deter- mined by lay jurors. Hence, laypeople’s understanding of the term must be considered, especially whether they use it predominately in an evaluative fashion. In this corpus study based on supervised machine learning models, we investigate whether laypeople use the expression ‘reasonable’ mainly as a descriptive, an evaluative, or merely a value-associated term. We find that ‘reasonable’ is predicted to be an evaluative term in the majority of cases. This supports prescriptive accounts, and challenges descriptive and hybrid accounts of the term—at least given the way we operationalize the latter. Interestingly, other expressions often used interchangeably in jury instructions (e.g. ‘careful,’ ‘ordinary,’ ‘prudent,’ etc), however, are predicted to be descriptive. This indicates a discrepancy between the intended use of the term ‘reasonable’ and the understanding lay jurors might bring into the court room.

Author Profiles

Lucien Baumgartner
University of Zürich
Markus Kneer
University of Zürich


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